It’s a particularly good time to be interested in the collecting field of stereoscopy.
This month the Watts Gallery in Surrey is launching an exhibition of more than 150 images from a particularly famous fan of the art: Sir Brian May of rock band Queen.
He started his collection as a student and the 76-year-old has now amassed a huge archive. His fascination stems from a childhood experience when he found a little card inside a packet of Weetabix showing two pictures of hippos - he took up the invitation to send a slice of his pocket money to acquire an accompanying viewer and was hooked.
The gallery’s show, Victorian Virtual Reality: Photographs from the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy, runs until February 25 next year, exploring the 19th-century craze that for the first time enabled pictures to appear in 3D. Stereoscopic photographs comprise two images of the same scene taken from slightly different viewpoints. When these are mounted side by side and viewed through a stereoscope, the viewer sees just one 3D image.
Printed stereoscopic photographs, known as stereocards, eventually became affordable and in the late 1850s and 1860s they circulated world-wide in their tens of thousands. The art experienced a second wave of popularity in the mid-20th century - when Sir Brian became interested.
Last year he released a book, Stereoscopy Is Good For You. His firm, London Stereoscopic Company (LSC), has also exhibited at the Photographica fair and has a London outlet at the Proud photography gallery in Charing Cross (also launched last year - the first opening of a dedicated stereoscopic outlet in London since 1854).
The LSC can trace roots back to that year and was revived in 2008 by Sir Brian and fellow enthusiast and scholar Denis Pellerin. The latter is co-curator of the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy (BMAS) and co-curator of this Watts Gallery exhibition.
Emily Burns, co-curator at Watts Gallery - Artists’ Village, said the exhibition also presents an opportunity “to showcase stereoscopic photographs from The Rob Dickins Collection, part of our own collection and not usually on public display. We’ve worked closely with the BMAS curators to develop the engaging and interactive show, which demonstrates the relevance of Victorian history and arts to visitors today.”
Height of sophistication
One of the renowned early names in this field is Jules Richard who produced a viewer called the Taxiphote. The company was called Richard Frères when he ran it together with his younger brother Max. Max left the company in 1891, but the name and logo RF remained in use for many years.
Taxiphote was the name of a series of multiple view stereoscopes based on slide trays. The first patent dates from 1899. The first models were just called Stéréo Classeur, but soon the name Taxiphote was introduced. It was the most sophisticated stereoscope of its time.
The Taxiphote remained in production for 35 years and offered more or less the same features during its lifetime. The internal mechanism was improved through the years while the appearance stayed more or less the same. (See stereoscopyhistory.net for more.)
An example came up at Chiswick Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) on July 5 and doubled the top estimate to sell at £1000.
Consigned from the collection of an ex-Stereoscopic Society member, the Taxiphote was offered with an intriguing selection of several unique sets of 3D images on glass plates. The taxiphote itself is actually a relatively common sight at auctions. Where a lot of the value lies is in the images that accompany them.
A c.1902 example sold at Dominic Winter in May 2021 for £340 came with ‘200 diapositive glass stereoviews, depicting European views and family photos, etc’. In that same month Chiswick had sold another, c.1920s, for a premium-inclusive £500. It featured a selection of slides c.1890-1900 with subjects including construction and railway sites, bridges and station in South America, especially Brazil.
Chiswick’s latest example included about 120 glass stereo sides contained in their original Taxiphote ‘cassettes’ which can be stored in the base of the viewer.
Tim Goldsmith, the saleroom’s photographic consultant, said: “The first set of views are from the 1910 state funeral of King Edward VII in London, followed by multiple views taken in and around Bournemouth commemorating the 100th anniversary of its ‘founding’. The Bournemouth Centenary Carnival was held from July 6-20, 1910.”
Another set of images are from Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight. Most are of the racing yacht Shamrock owned by the famous tea magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton, a very wealthy and incredibly popular figure at the time.
The final set of images are the most significant, though. These record the first international aviation meeting in the UK, from July 11-16, 1910. It was just the fourth air show ever to be held in this country.
Goldsmith added: “A new aerodrome had been built on the outskirts of Bournemouth for the occasion and, thanks to the large cash prizes on offer, it attracted many famous aviators of the time, including Morane, Drexel and others.
"Although Louis Blériot was not present at this event one of his aircraft raced and he was represented at the meeting by his wife, Alice, who can be seen in several of the images.
“Other aircraft taking part included a Wright Flyer (built by Short Brothers under licence) and flown by Charles Rolls, co-founder of Rolls-Royce. Rolls was such an enthusiastic aviator he gave up his partnership with Royce to concentrate on flying. Sadly, after winning the £100 prize for the slowest lap of the circuit at the event, Rolls was killed in what was then the first aviation fatality in the UK. He was just 32.
“Several of the images from the aviation meeting show Sir Thomas Lipton and the newly formed Aerial League of the British Empire who had taken over what looks like the tea hut - serving Lipton’s no doubt.”
Old meets new
The buyer, John William Evelyn, told ATG: “ I’ve only recently started to grow my camera collection. I have a fairly modest collection of only a few dozen cameras, but that’s what brought the auction to my attention in the first instance.
“I’m also an illustrator and game designer - and I’m currently working on a game inspired by the pioneering aviators of the early 1900s called The Wings of Sycamore.
“So when I came across the lot I just had to have it. It sat precisely at the intersection of all my interests, old and novel technologies, photography, and pioneering aviators - this lot coming as it did with a treasure trove of slides of one of the first air shows in Britain.”
The Wings of Sycamore is going to feature a Taxiphote “very prominently, it was just too serendipitous to pass up”.
Evelyn added: “I’m planning to exhibit the Taxiphote alongside the game at WASD x IGN in London this September [a new event that will showcase a ‘giant’ collection of new, current and retro games]. It’ll be really exciting to share this fascinating technology with a younger audience who might otherwise never have known such a thing existed.
“I think this incredible device will really resonate with video game fans. It’s a direct ancestor of cutting-edge VR technologies that are so celebrated now - but its significance is easily missed if you’ve never had the good fortune of coming across one.”
Pellerin, co-curator of the BMAS, told ATG: “We have several taxiphote stereoscopes in the collection, with dozens of trays of glass slides for them.
“By a strange coincidence one of the first photos the visitors to the exhibition at Watts Gallery discover is one showing a young Brian May holding a very special taxiphote he has just bought at a fair - special in the sense that it has prisms which allow the owner to view stereo glass slides without having to transpose them.
“When you take a stereo photo with a binocular camera (two lenses) the right and left halves of the images need to be transposed, which means that the left image should go to the right and the right one to the left before they can be viewed in 3-D in an ordinary stereoscope. Not so with this special Taxiphote.”
Pellerin added that although the archive did not buy the Taxiphote at Chiswick “we would probably have bought the slides had they not been sold with a viewer. We have so many images and viewers in the archive (over 200,000 stereo images on metal, glass and paper, and over 600 viewers) that we are running quite out of space and need to weigh the pros and cons of adding new items.
“The other reason we did not buy that particular lot is that we specialise in Victorian stereoviews and these, interesting though the topics might be, were Edwardian and post-Edwardian.”
In the picture
See ATG No 2581 for more on stereoscope images and viewers sold at Chiswick previously. The next photography sales at the auction house are on September 27, October 18 and November 28.