Fiat Lux: Light and Darkness in the 18th Century

7 February, 2011 at 4:46 pm 3 comments

As fascinated I am by the 18th century, I really wouldn’t want to have lived back then. 18th century London was dirty, stinky and dangerous. Expensive clothes covered bodies riddled with a plethora of deseases, wigs were home to bazillions of lice. You were always at risk of having the content of somebody’s jerry poured over you on your way to the milliner. And we’re talking about the good part of the town here.

But, as much as I love my daily shower, access to soap and shampoo and healthcare, I’m aware that progress has cost us dearly. Our landscapes are  covered with concrete. Every day, 120 threatened species are wiped out from existence. We’ve become fully dependent on technology and have lost common sense and personal responsibility. We ruin our environment and call it progress. Seriously, I can’t blame alien lifeforms for not making contact.

There’s one precious thing that we’ve lost most people might not be aware of, though. You can’t touch it, you can’t buy it, you can’t sell it. It’s impossible to put it into a museum. No gene experiment can bring it back:


“Rubbish. I can pull the curtains, close the shutters and wear dark glasses, then I’ll have all the darkness I want!”

No. You won’t have darkness; you’ll have absence of light. And that’s not the same.

There were no electric lights in the 18th century; no illuminated advertising boards, no headlights, permanent street lights, no flood lights, no lamp on your bedside table. Candles aside to trick the night and carry some light into the darkness, life followed the sun. The day started with a sunray and ended moonlit – if you were lucky and there were no clouds in the sky.

Taking a walk at night was tricky business. Not only because there were cutthroats lurking; there was also the basic problem of not seeing where you were going. Imagine trying to get from your home to the local bakery while blindfolded! That’s where the link boys came in, leading the way with their torches. Sir Joshua Reynolds has immortalised those boys in his painting “Cupid as a Link Boy” (1771):

Plans to fit street lights were either impossible to realise or met with resistance from Godfearing people who claimed that “messing with God’s plan and bringing light into darkness” would cause all sorts of naughtiness and debauchery.

But on the country, away from the city lights (as sparse as they may have been), you were in the dark as soon as you left the hearth fire. Then it was just you and darkness and the stars. I’ve only ever had the chance of being “in the dark” once in my life; in Sicily. It was amazing – the crashing of the waves, not an artificial light in sight, and above me billions of stars. You haven’t seen stars until you’ve seen them in the dark, without any distracting lights from cars and houses and planes. It was one of the few times I’ve been allowed to catch a glimpse of eternity.

Back to the 18th century, though. Frederick II of Prussia, also known as “the Great” or “Old Fritz”, was a highly fascinating character; in many aspects ahead of the times. He resided in the royal palace of Sanssouci in Potsdam, near Berlin. It’s a lovely place, and I can only recommend a visit. Light was a luxury item, so it goes without saying that the stars had to shine brightest when Frederick II had guests for supper or one of his musical soirees. While modern hosts may show off with a designer lamp, the high society of the 18th century tried to impress with the number of candelabra and chandeliers. Quality candles were so precious that the treasurer for silver himself was responsible for them! Maids and servants had to do with tallow candles.

Pièce de resistance, however, were the chandeliers. They were incredible in every aspect, from the French craftsmanship to the quality of the Swiss rock crystal used, to their cutting in Milano/Italy to, of course, the price. Frederick had to live on cup noodles for a week to finance this luxury, because he paid for the chandeliers with his own private money. Light was a demonstration of wealth and power. He who had the light would rule the world. That was true in Prussia as well as Britain or France.

I’ve recently stumbled over a fascinating documentary made by a German TV station. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event – the candelabra and chandelier in the music room of Frederick’s “Neues Palais” (“new palace”, a building on the westside of the Sanssouci park), were lit.  A handful of visitors and the camera team got the unique chance of seeing the place as it would have looked like in the 18th century!

The results of the experiment are interesting: the main sources of light were the candelabra, not the chandelier, which was a decorative piece to impress and represent, but did not give much light. The effect of the candlelight was multiplied by mirrors and polished surfaces, but once all candles were lit, the room was still – dark. Personally, I found the mood created by the original lighting the most fascinating aspect. Impressing, humbling, almost devotional – one feels a bit like a child in front of a Christmas tree. The perspectives in the room change as well, everything seems to be bigger, more spacious. It’s pure magic.

If we visit a historic place today, there are bright lights everywhere. While this gives us the chance to see every detail, we don’t see these places the way people in the 18th century would have. Bright electric light =/= candlelight. But those rooms were furnished and decorated with candlelight in mind, and fitted to be at their most impressive when lit by candles. “Light” was never something I’ve thought about in context of history, but this was really mind-opening; what if my eyes and my mind have become addicted to artificial light, being exposed to it every day? Who knows – maybe I’m not even able to see candlelight the way it really is?

You can watch the documentary online; just click on the link below. It’s in German, but even if you don’t speak the language, you can enjoy the sight of 18th century light and darkness.

“DAS LICHT DES KÖNIGS” – watch the documentary

Read about the documentary (in German)


Entry filed under: 18th century, art, resource, tv. Tags: , , , , .

Resource: “To Horatio, from Emma, with Love” 18th century “lonely hearts” add – of sorts.

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Le Loup  |  7 February, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    Excellent post, thank you.
    We live in a forest, and are in the dark every night. We have been off the grid for over 30 years. Actually the Aliens have made contact, or at least if showing themselves classes as contact. Whether or not they will want to move here or not I can’t say.
    A Woodsrunner’s Diary.

  • 2. One More Stitch  |  13 February, 2011 at 5:13 pm

    Terrific post and thanks for the links. I have very little light in my home and no overhead lights at all except for in the small kitchen. I often look into the dark corners at night as I sit next to a solitary lamp and cast my mind back into the past, thinking about the even lesser amount and distance of light provided by candles or oil lamp light. When I do textile demonstrations, using my reproduction workbox which has a mirror in its lid, I bring up the subject of light, too. It is something that is very difficult to grasp unless one can truly recreate it, both indoors and out.

  • 3. Anna  |  14 February, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Wonderful, thought-provoking post! I’m lucky enough to live in an isolated villlage without street lighting, so late at night, I get a glimpse of a truly darkened world. Even more wonderful is to wake in the early hours thinking it’s dawn, only to discover it’s the magical light of a full moon, with no competition from street lights etc.

    Here’s a link to the Lunar Society of Birmingham, a group of men who met tin the 18th century to discuss the matters of the day. They met when the moon was full to make their journey lighter and safer.


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