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Great Spectacle Wearers From History

In which we consider Robespierre’s eyesight


Since briefly writing about Maximilien Robespierre the other week – particularly, writing about the biography Fatal Purity by Ruth Scurr – I’ve had a couple of search hits from people looking for Robespierre information. And one, in particular, tickled me.

maximilien robespierre glasses

Drinking glasses with Robespierre etched on the side? Possibly. But, I assumed, about spectacles. Because Robespierre was famous for wearing spectacles. His whole life, he had terrible eyesight. He habitually wore glasses with green-tinted lenses, and often when speaking, a second pair over the top.

He was both short- and long-sighted, so everything he saw was slightly blurred. His glasses helped him focus, they filtered the harsh sunlight, and they were also props used to dramatic effect as he spoke at the tribune. (Scurr, p10).

Strangely, though, there are barely any portraits of Robespierre that show him wearing glasses. There were probably thousands of images of him made during his lifetime – his own study was practically papered with him – but in just about all of them his forehead and eyes are bare. There is one portrait showing them resting high on his forehead; and one rough sketch, made the day before his death, in which he’s wearing them.

Maybe it’s something about his depiction, often in an idealised fashion; but that doesn’t apply to all the portraits made of him by a long chalk. Maybe, though, it’s about his own personality. Robespierre had something in common with the modern far-left politicans George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan: a noticeable pride in his own appearance and clothing, bordering on vanity.* He always dressed well, as well as he could afford, and fashionably.** Maybe he didn’t want to be seen in glasses, even though he had to wear them all the time. It’s certainly a possibility. If he was around today, I’m fairly sure that he’d go for contacts.

* Apart from that, and their place on the far left, he had very little else in common with them, of course. On the one hand: Robespierre did achieve a position of high political importance in his lifetime. On the other, he’s unlikely to ever appear on Celebrity Big Brother, what with being dead, and all. Robespierre was often libelled in the press; his response was to start his own political newspaper. Court cases weren’t really an option at the time.

** The BBC’s rather unhistorical Saturday-teatime version of The Scarlet Pimpernel was particularly inaccurate here, showing him always in dour black outfits, when he was famous for his brightly-coloured jackets and embroidered waistcoats.

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2 comments on “Great Spectacle Wearers From History”

  1. Clair says:

    I don’t doubt that it was unhistorical, but the Scarlet Pimpernel was good fun.

  2. Forest Pines says:

    No doubt it was! Robespierre was much less of a pantomime villain in real life, though – well, real life usually tends to be more realistic. I did read the original book, once, many many years ago; and I can’t remember a thing about it.

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