During August I set myself the task of visiting a different art exhibition every day and blogging about it. Mission accomplished! This was the last day.

Monday 31 August

Exhibition: 'Poor man's picture gallery': Victorian Art and Stereoscopic Photography
Place: Tate Britain

I was hoping to end my month of daily gallery-going at Tate Britain’s much discussed Sensorium, with its art-friendly chocolate and smellorama effects. But this was sold out all day and instead I found myself on Millbank in a room devoted to the exploitation of art during the 19th century by stereo photographers. It turned out to be a kind of Victorian equivalent to the Sensorium, in that it looked at a process – stereoscopy – that sought to enhance the experience of art. But it also brought that art into the home, just as (for example) DVD or Blue-Ray has done for Hollywood films.   

In art terms the high Victorian age was dominated by narrative painting, which is distinguished from previous genres like history painting and mythological art by being about everyday situations, especially the dramas of domesticity and economic welfare. To see a new work by stars like Frith or Millais people queued for seats in theatre-like settings where curtains parted in front of them to reveal the new work. They then examined it with great seriousness, giving it the kind of attention to detail and  interpretation that would put today’s snap-and-move-on gallery visitor to shame.

Exhibitions like this were backed up by prints, and then by photography, enabling people to bring the pictures and the discussion home. But such reproductions were necessarily diminutions while stereoscopy, when it arrived, could be promoted as an actual improvement on the original.


  Broken Vows/ stereoscope by James Elliot based on oil painting by Philip Hermogenes Calderon

A stereocard is of two images side by side, each from a slightly different angle that's equivalent to the separation of the eyes. It is then seen through a viewer, one image for each eye, to give the illusion of 3-D. The original photographed scene had to be three dimensional in the first place, however, so photographers turned to an indirect method when dealing with flat oil paintings: they restaged them using models, costumes and sets, and photographed them with a special double-lensed camera. The results were on sale for a few shillings – or roughly the equivalent of a modern DVD. So they were not particularly cheap, and were no use unless you already owned the equipment to view them.  

Tate stereoscopic viewer loaded with The Death of Chatterton

This is quite a complicated exhibition, enjoyable at several levels. A few big and famous works that attracted the attention of the stereoscopers are in the show – Frith’s Derby Day, Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, Shakespearean scenes by Daniel Maclise and a couple of star turns by Millais, and these are of course worth seeing close-up in their own right. The addition of a dozen stereoscopic viewers allows you to look at the choices the stereoscopers made, and the difficulties they faced, in order to adapt or “improve” them for the new medium.

Happy_as_a_King-_Collins.jpg Happy as a King/ William Collins c. 1836

happy_as_stereo.jpgStereocard of the same

The issue of a stereocard in 1859 based on Henry Wallis’s big hit Chatterton provided an interesting moment in the history of copyright. The painting was on tour around the country when a dentist-turned-photographer, James Robertson, restaged the scene for a stereoscopic camera, only to find himself sued for infringing copyright. His defence, that he had not reproduced the actual picture but merely restaged it, did not impress the judge who found against him. Yet the case didn’t impair the stereoscopic art trade at all, and there were no further court cases: presumably it made artists and exhibitors realise that the fame of the original work was increased not diminished by this secondary trade.

As a matter of fact not all the copying was being done by the stereoscopers, for artists were not averse themselves to the charms of a popular stereocard. Millais’s big bravura picture Hearts are Trumps from 1872 is a case in point – a direct adaptation of Michael Burr’s stereocard produced six years earlier.


Hearts_are_Trumps-_Millais.jpg Hearts Are Trumps/ Millais 1872

Hearts are Trumps
(left hand frame of stereocard)/ Burr 1966

Anyone interested in Victorian art and life will enjoy The Poor People’s Picture Gallery. It even includes a few  possibly less familiar works that are well worth seeing (along with their stereocards), including these Londoners crammed into a horse omnibus in 1859, painted by William Maw Egley.

Omnibus_Egley.png  Omnibus Life in London / Egley 1859

Posted on September 1st, 2015


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