The Amazing Arcadian Thames Camera Obscura Tent

by jason debney in London, England, United Kingdom

We did it
On 1st September 2020 we successfully raised £4,040 ( + est. £1010.00 Gift Aid ) with 3 supporters in 182 days

To kit out, train volunteers and run for a two years an exciting new education tent to engage the public about the Thames environment

by jason debney in London, England, United Kingdom


The project looks to re-create a modern interpretation of a traditional camera obscura tent to be used by one of the UK’s most innovative environmental partnerships in its education and outreach work.  £10,000 has already been raised to construct the tent, we now need to raise the funds to kit it out and to provide for its running costs over the next two years.  The Amazing Arcadian Thames Camera Obscura Tent provides a unique, informative and fun way for the Thames Landscape Strategy to engage with members of the public regarding the need to adapt the Thames floodplain as flood risk increases due to the climate emergency.  The tent will be used in partnership with a ground-breaking new project called Rewilding Arcadia that sets out a series of rewilding initiatives to make the parks, gardens and towpaths at risk along the Thames ready for the future as the climate crisis continues to damage the floodplain.  


Between Windsor and Chiswick, the River Thames meanders through a unique landscape of world famous publicly owned parks, royal palaces and working communities known as the Arcadian Thames (meaning ‘rural paradise’). Centuries of settlement, aristocratic patronage and local action has left a remarkable legacy of architecture, accessible open space and wildlife considered to be one of the most culturally significant urban landscapes in the world offering unrivalled recreational benefits. This Arcadia is a countryside in the city where people, water, history and wildlife co-exist.  


In the 1990s the pressure for inappropriate development along the river and a growing realisation that something had to be done to protect its heritage, wildlife and traditions galvanized local people into action and the Thames Landscape Strategy was created.   For 25 years, the Thames Landscape Strategy has been the guardians of this unique landscape; working through its partnership of 250 local groups, individuals and riparian authorities to conserve, promote and enhance the wildlife, heritage features and recreational opportunities on and beside the river.   

The Thames Landscape Strategy has been the catalyst for a real renaissance in the fortunes of the Arcadian Thames.  The cross-river vision has steered change, influencing policy and has raised £21m for restoration, environmental management and educational projects.  People have always been at the core of the organisation’s work - 380,000 hours of volunteer conservation work have been managed that has for example seen a staggering 85% reduction in plastic litter washed up onto the banks of the river. 

The Thames Landscape Strategy (TLS) working with its charity The Father Thames Trust is constantly looking for new ways to engage with the public to increase understanding about the landscape.  The need for engagement has never been greater than at the present.  The Amazing Arcadian Thames Camera Obscura has been designed to act as an exciting education tool to be used to inform and engage with a wide cross section of people as the Thames Landscape Strategy rolls out a new project ‘Rewilding Arcadia’ as we come to grips with how climate change is already altering the river.


The river is changing – floods are increasing whilst summer drought is often now the norm.  The Climate Emergency has started to alter the Arcadian Thames floodplain and all the predictions show that these changes are simply going to get worse.  At present, the Thames floodplain is not ready to cope with these changes.  The Arcadian parks and towpaths are low lying and not protected by a flood defence wall. As such they are at threat from both tidal inundation and a freshwater flood coming from higher up the river.  To sustain riverside recreational activities (such as sitting, walking and cycling), conserve wildlife and protect historic features, the Arcadian Thames is going to have to evolve.  ‘Rewilding Arcadia’ sets out a mechanism for managed adaptation at six key sites alongside a broad education campaign based on climate change predictions in order to retain the character of the floodplain, its use and diversity.  The project has cross-authority support and has the backing of the key stakeholders along the river.

Any changes to such a special and cherished landscape however, have to be carefully consulted on and explained to communities and users if people are to understand how climate change is effecting the Thames floodplain.  The Amazing Arcadian Thames Camera Obscura will be used to inform the public about what is happening and to gather views as to how the Rewilding Arcadia scheme can be altered to take into account any comments made.  A project of this scale, needs an innovative way to communicate and listen – the camera obscura is intended to capture the public’s imagination to get the message across that the climate emergency is ALREADY damaging our precious River Thames and that something needs to be done to get it ready for change!  

We have raised £10,000 so far to commission Mark Edwards (a world renowned boat builder - who constructed HM The Queens Royal Thames Rowbarge The Gloriana) to make a replica of an 18th Century Camera Obscura tent for the public to use.   The tent will be used at fairs and events up and down the river and will tour schools and other institutions.  In addition, its design allows for it to be easily pitched on any ‘soft’ riverside location so that the general public visiting the river can also be engaged.  


The term ‘Camera Obscura’ was first used in early 17th century, deriving from the Latin ‘camera’ meaning ‘room’ and ‘obscura’ meaning ‘dark’ or ‘dark room’.  The affect produced by a Camera Obscura is known as ‘pin-hole projection’.  By making a small hole in the wall or ceiling of a darkened room (or tent) an image of the scene outside the hole can be reflected into the inside of the room. This is because light travels in a straight line.  When the outside rays pass through the hole they do not scatter but cross - reforming as an upside down image on a flat surface directly opposite the hole.  The quality of the reflected image is greatly improved by using a convex lens inserted into the aperture of the hole.  

A camera oscura

The physics of pinhole reflection dates to the Chinese philosopher Mo-Ti in the 5th century BC, who called his dark room the ‘locked treasure room’.  It was first described outside China by the Arabian scholar, Alhazen of Basra in about 1030 and then by Leonardo DaVinci in 1490. In 1558 Giovanni Battista Della Porta in his book Magiae Naturalis recommended its use as a drawing aid for artists. 

In the eighteenth century the addition of a mirror was used to reflect the image down onto a flat viewing surface such as a round table positioned in the centre of a tent. This allowed for portable ‘tents’ often associated with tea drinking to be constructed that formed a movable inside place from which to view and understand the outside world. These obscura tents quickly became a marvel of the Scientific Age - a tool for the most fashionable gentlemen of the day to show off their good taste and knowledge.  No other place was as fashionable as the Arcadian Thames at the time.  Up and down the river, in the villas of the aristocracy, camera obscura tea tents were erected and used to learn about the Arcadian landscape that was being laid out around them. The results of this landscape revolution still form the backbone to the public landscape enjoyed today.  It was not long before every travelling fair also boasted an obscura tent – now everybody could have a look and understand the landscape in this unique way. One by one however, the tents were lost, now only one survives to the present and is safely locked away.  

The Amazing Arcadian Thames Camera Obscura will re-create the magic of a traditional camera obscura tent using cutting edge technology.  The tents were originally used to interpret and explore the Arcadian landscape when it was being laid out.  We intend to use the same technology to explain why the Arcadian Thames (now fully democratized and in public ownership!) needs to evolve due to the climate emergency.  


The main structure looks a little like a big Bell Tent, with white canvas walls and a fully accessible entrance.  The interior however, is covered in black-out curtain so that a projection of the outside world can be reflected from a lens (that pokes some distance out of the top of the tent to gather light) to a table on the ground in the middle of the tent.  In this way a series of educational tools can be used on the reflected image to demonstrate how climate change will change what is being observed.  Visitors to the tent will be able to turn the lens and gather images from 360 degrees.  

Image result for camera obscura

There will be no charge for entry and sites have been chosen to erect the tent that will ensure engagement with  a broad cross section of the community, casual visitors and school children both at formal events and at key locations along the towpath.


The TLS has already successfully raised the money to commission the construction of the tent and camera obscura lens itself.  This will be launched in July.  We are now looking at raising the funds to kit out the inside of the structure.  We need to buy a suitable reflecting table and 10 chairs.  We also need to prepare a set of interpretative material for the walls of the tent and information for visitors to take away (including on-line material) about why the climate emergency is effecting the landscape and how the Thames Landscape Strategy’s Rewilding Arcadia project sets out to minimize any negative changes.  The project also would like to interpret the camera obscura itself.  

Once the tent has been kitted out, we need funds to train dedicated volunteers to work alongside paid staff (funded separately) to manage the tent.  These volunteers will need to be able to transport, erect and run the camera obscura tent at schools, local fairs and on the towpaths.  The volunteers need to be briefed on the Rewilding Arcadia project and the camera obscura.  

A comprehensive programme of activity is planned for the coming two years.  The more money we raise however, the more places we can go to and the more people we can engage with.   




This project offers rewards in return for your donation.

£20 or more

Bronze Reward

Funders will receive a digital certificate from Sir David Attenborough thanking them for their support

£50 or more

0 of 100 claimed

Silver Reward

Funders of £50 will receive a digital certificate from Sir David Attenborough plus an invitation to one of the events that the tent is used at so that you can see for yourselves he Amazing Arcadian Thames Camera Obscura Tent in action.

£100 or more

0 of 100 claimed

Gold Reward

Funders of £50 will receive a digital certificate from Sir David Attenborough plus an invitation to a special Funders Event during which you will be able to see the Amazing Arcadian Thames Camera Obscura Tent in action and meet representatives from across the Thames Landscape Strategy partnership.

£300 or more

0 of 50 claimed

The Father Thames Patrons Reward

For gifts of £300 you will receive an invitation to the Arcadian Thames Summer Garden Party to be attended by the Thames Landscape Strategy Patrons including Sir David Attenborough and Alan Titchmarsh. At the event the Camera Obscura will be officially opened. The Garden Party will take place at Petersham Lodge, Richmond hosted by HSH The Princess Loewenstein on the evening of Monday July 5th 2020. Each gift of £300 entitles entry to 1 person.

£1,000 or more

1 of 5 claimed

The Arcadian Thames Reward

For gifts of £1000 you will receive an invitation to a short pre-event reception at the Arcadian Thames Summer Garden Party to be attended by our Patrons Sir David Attenborough and Alan Titchmarsh. At the event the Camera Obscura will be officially opened and your name read out. To take place at Petersham Lodge, Richmond hosted by HSH The Princess Loewenstein on the evening of Monday July 5th 2020. Each gift of £1000 entitles entry to 1 person

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