Sir Brian has been buying from photo fairs, stalls at Portobello Road, antique shops, photo dealers, other collectors and auction houses since he started collecting some 60 years ago. The Watts Gallery exhibition houses the first stereo image he kept as well as the first viewer he acquired by cutting out a special offer token from a cereal packet and sending a shilling and sixpence.
Although Sir Brian used to buy everything himself I have been doing the major part of the buying for him for the past 11 years, mostly from the same sources, but also from people who, knowing about his passion, contact us directly. Sir Brian was a regular visitor of auction houses when, as a student, he could not afford to buy any of the views for sale. He would attend the viewings which allowed him to go through the lots and view the images in 3-D.
Later on, when his means grew more substantial, he would attend auctions and be in a measure to buy what he fancied.
We still buy at auctions in Britain, mostly online these days, but since that damn Brexit we tend not to purchase from dealers or auction houses on the continent as the paperwork, the extra taxes and the shipping costs have completely destroyed any enjoyment there could be in getting new images from abroad. A real shame!
Sir Brian’s favourite images are early British and French stereoviews. By early we mean images from the 1850s, the first golden age of stereoscopy. The oldest views in the archive are stereo daguerreotypes of the 1851 Great Exhibition. Although stereoscopy was invented before photography, stereo images did not become popular until that “exhibition of all nations”.
Sir Brian has a favourite photographer who was a pioneer of the stereoscopic medium (he took stereos of the interior of the Crystal Palace in 1851) and became one of the greatest portraitists of his time: Thomas Richard Williams (1824-71). There is an original image on paper by TR Williams in the exhibition representing women turning barley in the village of Hinton Waldrist.
There is also a modern enlargement of a portrait he took in 1856, at the request of Queen Victoria herself, of the Princess Royal (Vicky) on the occasion of her 16th birthday.
The original of this lovely hand-tinted portrait was made on a metal plate but since the exhibition is staying at Watts Gallery for eight months, it would have been impossible to exhibit this precious daguerreotype without damaging it (old and new photographs, though created by light, cannot stand too much light for a long period and start fading).
This unique image was bought at an auction a couple of decades ago and has been cherished ever since.
Another work by the same photographer can be seen in one of the four digital viewers in the exhibition. Also originally a daguerreotype bought at an auction, it represents Jane Elizabeth Senior (1828-77), a friend of George Frederic Watts as well as Britain’s first female civil servant, with her sister-in-law Mary Charlotte Mair Senior.
There are 150 original images from Sir Brian’s archive in the exhibition and some 60 digital reproductions. All can be seen in 3-D thanks to the use of different viewing techniques.
The two co-curators of the archive (my colleague Rebecca Sharpe and myself) have collaborated closely with Emily Burns and Tegan Rush, the two co-curators from the Watts Gallery and between the four of us we have put together an exhibition which, although it reflects but a small part of Sir Brian’s archive, gives a good idea of what the Victorians enjoyed and the kind of images they would buy, hire for the evening or borrow from one of the stereoscopic circulating libraries that existed at the time.
Stereoscopy was huge in the 1850s and its impact can be compared to the one television had a hundred years later, around the time of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. With this exhibition we hope the visitors will discover how ingenious our ancestors were but also that stereoscopy existed long before Avatar! This is one of the reasons we have included a red View-Master in the first space, to remind people of the ‘toy’ they drew lots of pleasure from as children and may still have in a corner of their attic.
This exhibition was made possible because of Sir Brian ’s life-long passion for stereoscopy and for the images that were made for the stereoscope over 150 years ago. It is one of his greatest and most unusual legacies. There are dozens of music stars in the world but, to our knowledge, only one who has had the same hobby for over 60 years, has made sure their unique collection would be preserved through a charity for future generations and has accepted to share a portion of it with the public.
A show to see
Victorian Virtual Reality runs at the Watts Gallery in Surrey until February 25, 2024.