There was this kitchen cupboard where my mum kept the biscuits. I can picture it now, and opening it up to get to the old tins she kept for storing them in. A particular lovely tin was the Cadbury’s Lucky Numbers one, and another was labelled Peek Freans (who used to make the Playbox selection, those classic biscuits which made your tongue sore through the customary licking-off of icing). The Lucky Numbers container later became home for the collection of Betta Bilda blocks my sister and I played with (for some reason we never got into Lego, we just used to make lots of open plan white brick houses with green roofs, perfect in the ’60s and ‘70s). Anyway, I had so much love for those tins, more than they warranted really. They were special, symbolic even - of the whiff of pink wafers and chocolate digestives, of biscuits which shouldn’t have been stored together (gingernuts and jammy dodgers, anyone?) whose flavours and smells rubbed off on one another due to the cross-contamination in space-saving storage solutions.
There was one other tin in the cupboard which preoccupied me, but for something other than its contents. Barmouths or Gipsy Creams, Jaffa Cakes or even Betta Bilda - it wouldn’t have mattered, it was the picture on the side which captivated. I think we'd been given this as a present originally, and that it was foreign; I remember the picture being of a woman holding a container and - this was the wondrous and fascinating thing about it – the tin that she was holding was also the one I was looking at! And it was obvious that the woman shown on the tin that the woman on the tin was holding, was also holding a tin showing a woman holding a tin showing…… yes, one of those. Although I couldn’t see it, I knew it went on forever - forever into infinity, too tiny to pick out with the human eye – but the thought alone just boggled my mind. A bit like if you’ve ever thought too deeply about the vastness of the universe and you start to feel weird and dizzy and have to think about something mundane like hard boiled eggs instead - in fact I have to stop myself going there now.
(Eggs, think about eggs!)
(Eggs, think about eggs!)
Anyway, this image fascinated me so much, I asked my big sister, who knew about mysterious things like formaldehyde and quicksand, what it might be called. Was there a name for such a thing, a picture within a picture within a picture? She didn’t know. So, after much thought we made up our very own special word for it, and felt very chuffed. I wish I could remember the word we decided on, I’m sure it was something that sounded suitably grown-up, like pictomath or propagraph – something sort of technical.
I hadn’t thought about this in ages, and then I just happened to fancy some cheese spread today, went to the fridge and took out the little box of Laughing Cow triangles when I noticed something that had simply passed me by until now – that the Laughing Cow is wearing a rather fancy pair of earrings...
Look closely at those earrings and what do you see? Laughing cows wearing laughing cows wearing laughing cows wearing....
(Eggs! Think about eggs!)
Wish I could remember that made-up word! A parapod? A hypertype?
I've had to go and look it up of course… turns out there isn't one distinct technical word for the picture within a picture (or what's described as a ‘recursive’ image, I discovered) but the principle itself is called the Droste Effect. What’s that all about? Well, apparently it was named after the Dutch chocolate company Droste, who made a tin with a picture of a woman holding a tin with a picture of (etc. etc). The very same picture as the one that was on the tin that was in the cupboard where my mum kept the biscuits.