8 November 2013
Rocker Brian May made a cameo appearance in Leicester yesterday to showcase his unique collection of 19th century depictions of Hell and damnation. The Queen guitarist visited De Montfort University to give a joint lecture on Victorian stereo cards – 3D images looked at through a special viewer.
The pictures, all showing macabre representations of the underworld, are comprised of two, two-dimensional images set side by side, to create a 3D image when viewed through a stereoscope.
Dr May, who holds a PhD in space science, spoke about the niche collectables yesterday after the launch of his book on the subject.
He said: “They’re wonderful works of art. They’ve become something of an obsession – something which occupies my days and the times in between when I can’t sleep.”
To write the book, the musician joined forces with De Montfort University doctoral student Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming, former archivist at the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington. The trio co-wrote Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell – based on a set of stereo cards printed in France in the 1860s.
The images show 3D representations of Hell populated by skeletons, devils and satyrs.
Although stereo cards paved the way for current 3D technology, they have never been equalled, said Dr May.
“The Victorian experience is still the best,” he said. “We’ve all been to the cinema and seen Avatar, but this is still the most pleasurable type.”
Stereo cards were developed by Sir Charles Wheatstone, in 1838.
Yesterday’s joint lecture explained the history of the cards, their place in society and how they developed.
Paula said: “Magazines and newspapers couldn’t reproduce photographs very easily, so these were really people’s windows on the rest of the world.”
Denis said: “We take for granted being able to see pictures of anything we want, but in the 19th century these images could transport you to a far-off land.”
Dr May’s collection, which he jointly holds with Denis and Paula, is comprehensive, but incomplete. The original set is made up of 182 ghoulish pictures. The trio have only located 180.
“There are still two out there,” said Paula. “If we could find them, it would be amazing.”
Originally, the cards were produced to warn people about the dangers of sinning and show them images of hell, said Denis. However, over time they became more lighthearted.
Dr May said: “At first, people were taught to fear Hell and these showed the fire and brimstone, so Hell was exactly what you saw. But then they developed humour, too. Every now and then you find one with one skeleton biting another – they started out very serious, but became quite satirical over time.”
Paula said: “Eventually, they showed that life in Hell wasn’t all that bad – in fact, it was quite enjoyable.”They had huge dinner parties and regattas – the images showed people having fun.”