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David Carpenter, Ocularist

September 26, 2013
by the gentle author

David Carpenter

In the nineteenth century, artificial eyes were sometimes made of lead-based glass, so if the owner were to walk in extreme cold temperatures and then enter a warm room with a blazing fire, there was always a danger their eye might explode – a risk that, thankfully,  has been overcome these days through the prudent use of crystallite rather than glass.

This was just one of many memorable pieces of information upon the esoteric subject of glass eyes that I garnered when Contributing Photographer Patricia Niven & I visited David Carpenter, Chief Ocularist, at the Moorfields Eye Hospital in the City Rd this week. David and his team of four produce more than thirteen hundred eyes annually – each one hand-crafted and individually-painted – to replace those that get lost in the capital.

It may sound like an awful lot of eyes but David and his colleagues are so skilful that, if you were not looking for it, you would not notice the results of their handiwork. Such is their success in creating life-like eyes – David assured me – that you probably know people with artificial eyes but you do not even realise.

Yet there is far more to the work of an ocularist is than just technical expertise. “If people have to have an eye removed because they’ve had a tumour or a cancer, it’s akin to losing a limb,” David admitted to me quietly, “They put their life on hold – then, after surgery and the healing process, they come to me and I make the prosthetics. You give them an eye, but really you are giving them their life back. It can be a great moment when you give them their glass eye – often, they cry with joy and, sometimes, they give you a hug.”

As one who has wrought such transformations for the better in so many people’s lives – simultaneously a technician, an artist and a counsellor – David certainly carries his role lightly. “I make little model tanks, I made them as a kid and I’ve never stopped,” he confessed with a blush, revealing the early manifestation of his distinctive talent, “and when I applied for this job, I was able to show them to prove I could do modelling.”

“Let me get out my box of bits to show you,” David suggested enthusiastically, pulling a container from a cabinet that looked it might contain a sponge cake, only it actually contained a selection of glass eyes and pieces of rubber prosthetics attached to spectacles.

Glass eyes are not round like marbles – as I had naively assumed – but curved like sea shells, so they fit neatly under the lid and can move in tandem with their living partner. David makes a cast to ensure that the eye fits its owner perfectly and then paints the pupil with the patient in front of him, using his expert judgement to match it exactly. “An eye is more than just one colour, you’ll need to use two or three colours to get the effect you want,” he informed me, “You start with a little black disc and you paint lines outwards from the centre and these striations of different tones blend to create the colour of the pupil. In the States, they have tried to do this digitally but the effect is flat whereas building up the layers of paint creates a more three dimensional effect.” Then David pointed out how unravelled strands of red embroidery thread are used to create the impression of veins upon the white of the eye and grinned with pleasure as he studied the convincingly life-like result.

It was surreal to stand  in the workroom surrounded by lone eyes of every hue peering at us, yet this was David’s normal environment and the place where he is at home. “I just fell into it really,” he informed me with shrug and a gauche smile, picking up an eye and polishing it tenderly with his finger, “I was training as a dental technician, making teeth at a college in Hastings – because I planned to emigrate to Australia and work in dentistry – when I saw an advert for an apprenticeship on ocularistry. Once you have trained as a dental technician, the next step is to become maxillofacial technician – I can make noses, ears, fingers – in fact, any part of the body that might get accidentally severed.”

“I can’t make arms and legs though, there are other people who do that,” he qualified modestly, acknowledging his own limitations, “but I can reconstruct any part of the face that is missing including the eye.” And then he picked up the pairs of spectacles with realistic parts of facial anatomy, noses and eyebrows, attached and proudly explained they were particularly useful for older people who might otherwise mislay their replacement facial features.

“I’ve worked here for sixteen and a half years,” he said, turning contemplative suddenly and speaking as if to himself, “I’ve got patients that I first saw when they were little babies who are now grown up and still come back to see me – there’s some that are almost friends.”

Painting artificial eyes

David scrutinises his handiwork critically

A selection of prosthetic eyes

The white of the eye before the pupil is attached

A pupil before painting

The pupil in place

The finished eye emerging from the mould

Prosthetic attached to a spectacle frame

Polishing the eye

David Carpenter, Chief Ocularist at the London Eye Hospital

Photographs copyright © Patricia Niven

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7 Responses leave one →
  1. Samuel permalink
    September 26, 2013

    I always enjoy your blog. You find fascinating people and really bring out their characters. Thank you.

  2. Caryl permalink
    September 26, 2013

    What a wonderful vocation; he makes such a positive impact on society.

  3. Sarah permalink
    September 26, 2013

    Thank-you, Gentle Author. I just started subscribing last week and your articles are wonderful.

  4. Rosemary Hoffman permalink
    September 26, 2013

    super article I remember meeting a memberr of the team in a cafe near Moorfiellds last year and hearing about this topic. lovely to see the pictures

  5. Gary permalink
    September 26, 2013

    A friend of mine has a glass eye, there is one problem that he has.
    When he has had a rough night and too much booze his good eye turns bloodshot but his glass eye remains white.

  6. September 27, 2013

    Fascinating . Thanks.

  7. Cherub permalink
    September 28, 2013

    Just over 40 years ago, a boy in my class at school had lost an eye in a catapult accident. He had a glass one and would take it out in the science class and polish it on the sleeve of his blazer. The other boys loved this as it was so macabre, but the girls were practically fainting – at the time we were all into Hammer horror films lol.

    A really interesting piece.

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