skip to content

The graphic telescope is an optical aid for artists. It was patented in 1811, and is a device which enables artists to view magnified images and trace them onto paper.

Engraved inscription on the body of the graphic telescope
Engraved inscription on the body of the graphic telescope (Wh.0069).

The Whipple Museum has a graphic telescope made by its inventor, Cornelius Varley, around 1840. The optical principles involved are related to those used in other artistic aids such as the camera obscura and the camera lucida.

An advertisement for the instrument begins with the following claim:

By this instrument, any person, who can make a good outline, may draw, correctly, all kinds of objects, the most distant, as well as near, magnified to any scale.

And continues:

Buildings, Carts, Wagons, Agricultural Implements, &c. Boats and Shipping when ashore, with all the minutiae or rigging and curves of the vessel, may be traced in true proportion and perspective, let them be ever so complicated; more particularly, views of Towns, things which few persons would have the patience to attempt, without such an instrument. (1)

Using the graphic telescope

Illustration of the graphic telescope and its optical principles
Illustration of the graphic telescope and its optical principles. From the Magazine of Science, And School of Arts, 1840. The magazine contained a long description of the instrument (Wh.0069).

Looking into the eyepiece of the graphic telescope, the user sees a clear image on a speculum mirror and a less clear image superimposed over the paper below. Tracing this image, the artist could then accurately draw their subject matter.

Institutions that have Varley artwork:



  1. A reproduction of this advertisement is held at the Whipple Museum.

Boris Jardine

Boris Jardine, 'The graphic telescope and Varley's artwork', Explore Whipple Collections, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, University of Cambridge, 2008

Next Article: Maps of the Heavens

Opening Times

Please note that our lift is currently out of action and we do not have a step-free entrance.

Our maintenance unit is dealing with this urgently, and we hope to resolve within the next two weeks.

We are open five days a week, 12.30 - 16:30.

Monday 12.30 - 16:30

Tuesday 12.30 - 16:30

Wednesday 12.30 - 16:30

Thursday 12.30 - 16:30

Friday 12.30 - 16:30

We hope to see you soon!