Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Outlook Positive

One question I keep being asked, by people who have seen the details of the forthcoming Alliance of Literary Societies conference, is "What is the Outlook Tower?" I admit I haven't been very forthcoming on that subject because I am not an expert. I've been to Edinburgh a couple of times but didn't know anything about this building until my colleagues from the Wilfred Owen Association filled me in on the subject.
The Outlook Tower contains what is known as a "camera obscura", which literally means a dark room, a name it gained from its origins in medieval times. Actually, while the Western world was experimenting with this phenomenon, it was already well known in other cultures, and may well have been used in prehistoric times as a drawing aid. Many believe that this was the secret of the Dutch Masters, such as Vermeer, enabling them to achieve the almost photographic realism of for which their paintings are noted.
Controversy arose early in the nineteenth century when an astronomer set up an observatory practically next door to Edinburgh Castle, by adding a couple of storeys to an existing house. The project was continued and improved on by Patrick Geddes (1854-1932), who turned it into a museum. This is how the building was organised during the First World War, when Wilfred Owen arrived in the city. Owen's psychiatrist, Dr Brock (not, as some mistakenly think, Dr Rivers, who treated Siegfried Sassoon), set him the task of writing a report about the building - a building which Owen describes as "an Allegory" and "a philosophical poem". He formed the impression that the building had a soul, which accompanied the visitor from room to room.
Brock encouraged Owen's interest in poetry, and among other things this resulted in the newcomer becoming editor of the Hydra, a magazine written by the patients, of which most copies are held in the War Poets Collection at Craiglockhart, which we will be able to see when we visit on 3rd June this year. It was to seek a contribution to the magazine that Owen tentatively approached an even newer patient, Siegfried Sassoon, a few months later.
Nowadays, the contents of the Outlook Tower have changed somewhat. Although the camera obscura is still in operation - Derren Brown has given it a testimonial, describing it as "the finest I've seen" - the building has become a modern visitor attraction, rigged out with "an amazing range of optical experiences", intended to appeal to all the family. The World of Illusions, as it is called, includes a display called "Edinburgh Vision", based on views of the city as it would have been in Victorian days, a picture that Owen and Sassoon might perhaps have found more familiar than the Edinburgh of today.
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