Both Reynolds and Gainsborough had been suitably impressed around the same time by Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon, too, which was on display c.1781-2. As John Sunderland has explained, the Eidophusikon, described at the time as Moving Pictures, Representing Phenomena of Nature, was a small-scale animated stage-set with sound and lighting effects used to present literary stories and sublime landscape scenes. de Loutherbourg’s first engagements in London had been a result of his friendship with David Garrick who assisted in him becoming a scenic designer for the theatre, but he never realised the true potential of glass as a support for painting (a key feature of the Eidophusikon), and in later life he moved away from painting altogether to embrace alchemy and more esoteric interests.
Gainsborough, on the other hand, saw the unique potential of the medium and set about designing his own ‘exhibition box’, or show box as it has come to be known. The show box, held in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (above), is a closed wooden construction with a lens that can be animated to suggest distance with painted glass transparencies, each of which were lit by candlelight diffused behind a fine silk screen. While Gainsborough is celebrated as the inventor of such a construction there had, nevertheless, been many experiments by those researching the potential of such apparatus. The earliest may have been Alberti, in fifteenth century Italy. Most celebrated for his theoretical writings and work as an architect, poet, priest, linguist, and philosopher, for the most part historians have passed over his experiment, some mistaking it for a camera obscura, although Alberti describes his construction of an ‘intersector’' (the precursor of a ‘camera lucida’), in De pictura (his Treatise on Painting) published in 1450.
Gainsborough’s show box in the V&A has with it seven glass paintings which reveal a variety of experiments with lighting techniques; a River Scene with a Boat; a Woodland Scene with Tree Stump; a Downland Scene with River and Bridge; and probably the most revealing of the show box’s ability to enhance an image, slides such as A Cottage in Moonlight and a Woodland Scene with Pond and Cattle. These paintings on glass serve as an example of Gainsborough’s real joy in painting, too. Removed from any patronly pressure they are clearly relaxed, freestyle sketches and, as Jonathan Mayne has written of them: ‘All the evidence suggests that when Gainsborough’s friends called upon him and sat and sipped their tea, they were, perhaps without knowing it, assisting at the birth of some of the most original and attractive inventions. The show box, for all its air of being little more than an amusing toy, was in reality an important tool in the forging of Gainsborough’s late style in landscape painting.’