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The world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of paper peepshows has been donated under the Cultural Gifts Scheme, which is based on off-setting tax bills. This is the first gift under the scheme to be allocated to the V&A.

The word ‘peepshow’ can have certain connotations, but these paper peepshows resemble a pocket-sized stage set, complete with backdrop and paper cut-out scenes, which expand to create an illusion of depth.

The V&A gift of more than 360 paper peepshows, along with other optical wonders, spans nearly 300 years and 12 different countries. The collection was formed over 30 years by Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner and is now part of the V&A’s research collection, soon to be accessible in the reading rooms of the National Art Library.

Jonathan Gestetner is a well-known book dealer and collector. In 1990 he bought Marlborough Rare Books, in St Clement’s Court, Clements Lane, London, with his friend and business partner Guy Naggar.

Covering a wide range of subjects, the peepshows allow viewers the chance to join a vibrant masquerade, have a peek inside the Thames Tunnel or to follow Alice down the rabbit hole. Others commemorate historic events, such as the coronation of Queen Victoria or Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow in 1812.

They come in many shapes and sizes and are printed or handmade. Some are no larger than a matchbox, while others expand to over two metres in length.

Paper peepshow history

Peepshows were introduced in the mid-18th century in Augsburg and involved a long wooden cabinet designed for purpose incorporating a viewing lens and sometimes a mirror. The first paper and cloth versions were created in the 1820s. Smaller and more convenient, these peepshows became an inexpensive pastime for adults and children. Most commonly sold as souvenirs, they offered a glimpse into a choice of vistas, celebrating particular events, famous places or engineering feats.

Paper peepshows are still made today but aimed more at discerning adults and bibliophiles than children.

Dr Catherine Yvard, special collections curator at the National Art Library, V&A, said: “This collection is a real treasure trove and makes a wonderful addition to our holdings, which focus particularly on the art of the book.

“Peeping into one of these tunnel-books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space. In an instant you can join Napoleon on the Island of St Helena or a rowdy masquerade on London’s Haymarket.

“Peepshows were 19th century virtual reality. They offer wonderful insights into social history. Considering that most of them would have been made quite cheaply, it is a miracle that so many have survived.”

The collection will soon be available to search online on the National Art Library Catalogue and on ‘V&A Search the Collections’. Anyone wishing to access the peepshows can view them by appointment at the V&A’s National Art Library.

A fully illustrated catalogue detailing this collection was published in 2015 by the late Ralph Hyde (R Hyde, Paper Peepshows: the Jacqueline & Jonathan Gestetner Collection, Woodbridge: Antique Collectors’ Club, 2015).

The Cultural Gifts Scheme allows people to donate outstanding items or works of art to public collections in return for a tax reduction. It was introduced by the Government to encourage life-time giving to UK public collections and is administered by Arts Council England.

Highlights from the Gestetner collection include:

  1. Oldest paper peepshow in the collection: Teleorama No. 1, by HF Müller, c.1824-25. Made in Austria, this peepshow presents an idyllic garden leading to a large country house.
  2. Smallest: L’Onomastico, c.1900. This Italian peepshow is the size of a small matchbox, but expands to nearly 20cm long, revealing a lively street party.
  3. Most popular subjects: The Thames Tunnel and the Crystal Palace are each represented in more than 60 examples within the collection, each slightly different from the other.
  4. Longest: A handmade peepshow picturing riflemen on manoeuvre c.1910 expands to over two metres in length.
  5. Unique interest: A view from L’Angostura de Paine in Chile was probably hand-made by the British writer Maria Graham c.1835 when she travelled in Latin America.
  6. Oldest item in the collection: A British boîte d’optique c.1740, one of the precursors of the peepshow, consists of a mahogany box with a lens to view prints through.