© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
This beautifully painted mother-of-pearl spectacle case was made in France in about 1685, and is thought to have belonged to James II and VII (1633–1701), king of England, Scotland and Ireland. The case was used by James in exile, after he fled to France from Britain during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It is believed to have been passed down from James to his son James Francis Edward Stuart, ‘the Old Pretender’ (1688–1766), who later gifted it to a member of his retinue. In the process the case became a talisman for Jacobite supporters of the Stuarts.
The glasses – which were made during the first decades of the 18th century – are not the original pair worn by James, who died in 1701.
Throughout Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, the narrator, Lemuel Gulliver, is preoccupied with the mechanics of seeing, so much so that he fails to glean meaningful insights into his voyages. Gulliver wears spectacles ‘for the Weakness of mine eyes’ (p. 32), which would have resembled the pair shown here, though neither Gulliver nor Swift would have owned a case as fine as this. Gulliver’s reliance on his spectacles comes to symbolise his incompetence as a narrator.
In Part 1 Gulliver praises the Lilliputians’ eyesight: ‘Nature hath adapted the Eyes of the Lilliputians to all Objects proper for their View: They see with great Exactness’ (p. 51). Crucially, though, Gulliver fails to observe their lack of political or philosophical perspective, their extreme pride and petty inability to rise above the in-fighting at court and the farcical Big-Endian vs. Small-Endian saga.
Gulliver is very protective of both his glasses and his eyes. In Lilliput, Gulliver is searched and his possessions are confiscated. However, he manages to hide a few choice items including his glasses and telescope. One of the central themes of the story – that observation without understanding is futile – is epitomised by the (incomplete) inventory of Gulliver’s possessions made by the Lilliputians, who cannot comprehend the function of the items. For example, they assume that Gulliver’s pocket watch ‘is either some unknown Animal, or the God he worships’ (p. 30).
 All quotations from Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels, edited with an introduction by Claude Rawson and notes by Ian Higgins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).