A Message from the Past!

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In an earlier blog (5 March) we had two photographs, passed across to us by photographic archive Volunteer Alan Clarke. We asked if any of the people who appeared could be named, and received the following…. from none other than Peter Saunders, Curator Emeritus, and special friend of the museum.

“I don’t recall who the ‘gentlemen’ are but the thin chap with the luxuriant hair, moustache, and wearing the same tweed jacket in the photos – with the uniform of the Wilts Local Volunteers in 1977, and the Home Guard trophies in 1976 – is the then curator, me. The photos were taken while still in the old museum in St Ann Street.  I note that the long hair continued in fashion into the 1980s, though by then the parting had changed sides…”

“… the photo of me with the Giant and Hob Nob and the fire engine from Downton was taken in 1981 when we had just successfully brought these treasures from St Ann Street to the new museum site, the King’s House. The fire engine was transported on an AA trailer and, dated 1768, was said to be the oldest vehicle ‘rescued’ by the AA in Salisbury. I’m smiling that our largest objects had arrived safely, and in the knowledge that we were about to engage in a little sleight of hand. It’s little-known that when onlookers and the press had departed, these objects, enormous compared with all the new museum’s doors, were walked to the rear of the building to be located in what was to become the Salisbury gallery.  Few saw us unceremoniously easing them through a wall that had to be partially demolished to allow access.”

Thank you Peter! We should have recognised you anywhere!

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‘DARLING EDITH…’ by Volunteer Christine Mason

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‘Darling Edith’ at leisure. (Painting by Rex Whistler in The Salisbury Museum collection)

Last week, Volunteer Christine Mason wrote for us about the remarkable story of her involvement with the museum’s Rex Whistler archive. Thanks to this talented lady, some of the Whistler story is spreading far and wide…

Nothing of what happened throughout 2018 in preparation for the show would have been possible without the help, enthusiasm and encouragement of Louise Tunnard, and it was a gamble for her, as if the event wasn’t a success the museum stood to lose money.

I planned that there should be two readers, male and female, and I was very fortunate that two professional actor friends, Jill Fenner and Edward Halsted, expressed interest, so it was up to me to produce a script that would appeal to them. I started, naturally, by reading every item in the correspondence section of the archive, approximately 700 items, but of those 700, although some were just a single sheet, others were six or more pages long.  I selected about 59 possibilities to work on.  In the case of transcripts I could photocopy them to take home, but for the originals the photographs on Modes had to be retrieved, and here I was greatly indebted to volunteer David Balston for doing that.  Bearing in mind always that the performance had to be strictly of an hour’s duration was a good discipline when it came to editing the letters.  The first lines to go were the apologies that began almost every letter.  I have said that Whistler was a reluctant letter writer, and his correspondents always had to wait a long time for replies, even when commissions were being offered.  Repetition, references to people or events unknown today also disappeared.  Finally 27 letters and one envelope made up the script.  Once the shape was in place I had to provide a linking narrative, and decide on the division of the letters between the readers, which was roughly that the female would read letters addressed to women and the male those to men, but this was not strictly adhered to.  The title, ‘Darling Edith and others’ was arrived at by Louise and me over a lunchtime sandwich, and she designed the attractive poster advertising the event.  So with the script done, and timed with helpful friends reading aloud with me, copies were sent to the actors, who fortunately were both enthusiastic about it.

Soon after the script was completed, I was stewarding in the Henry Lamb exhibition, and one of the visitors was Katherine Olivier, the great-niece of the Darling Edith of the title.  We talked, and she said she lived in America so would not be able to come to the performance, but at her request I sent her a copy of the script, which she reviewed very kindly and positively.

With the script completed and accepted, I then had to think about the staging, bearing in mind the limitations of the Lecture Hall as a performance venue, with its very low stage making for difficult sightlines, and the lack of effective lighting.  Any staging, however minimal, is a costly business.  Both actors had offered to waive their fees, but this could not be allowed.  Louise negotiated with Edward’s agent, and Jill’s costs and other expenses were sponsored.  These included a dress being made to a 1930s pattern for Jill, and a donation to Salisbury Playhouse for the loan of furnishings, for which they generously had made no charge, and had given me a freehand to pick anything I wanted even including a vase of artificial flowers from the theatre’s foyer.  Other items to dress the set and genuine 1930s jewellery were scrounged from friends.  A superb copy of the self-portrait held by the museum was made, and two personal items from the archive also helped dress the set, Whistler’s Welsh Guard’s cap and the drinks flask he carried.

About two months before the date of the show, Jill and Edward came to Salisbury for a rehearsal one Saturday when the Lecture Hall was not in use.  This was our only rehearsal before the actual day, and all other notes and directions were conducted by e-mail between the three of us, but I could not have wished for more co-operative and amenable colleagues.

On the morning of 7th December we were to rehearse and set the stage, so it was disconcerting to arrive and find a decorated, artificial Christmas tree on the acting area and the hall bedecked with totally inappropriate bunting.  Fortunately, Jill’s partner who worked for years backstage at the Coliseum for English National Opera, removed the bunting with Wagnerian thoroughness, but his fight with the Christmas tree was more in the style of opera comique, and apologies if the tree was never the same again.

To our great relief the evening was completely sold out, and the performance went smoothly.  It had to end with a black-out, which was difficult to do, so I hid on stage behind a screen before the audience arrived, and Louise joined me after her introduction.  We had to have four hands on four switches to achieve the black-out, and we had been unable to synchronise this at the afternoon’s rehearsal, but by a miracle we managed it when it mattered.

It is very gratifying, that after so many months’ work by everyone involved, ‘Darling Edith and Others’ will be seen again.  Lewes Little Theatre, Sussex, with a suitable donation to the museum, has programmed it into their next season as a Sunday afternoon foyer performance on 31st May 2020, so if you missed it in Salisbury. . .

Christine Mason 

More from the British Museum

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part two, by Visitor Service Staff Sophia Sample

Sophia continues her account from last week’s blog about her week at The British Museum as part of their VS Knowledge Circle programme….

Without a doubt the highlights of the week were the three back-of-house tours with Collections Care Managers Richard Wakeman, Wendy Adamson and Alex Truscott. My first tour was with Richard, based in the Britain, Prehistory and Europe department. Richard was excited to show me a Scandinavian Sami ‘magic drum’, the armoury room, a room storing the Sutton Hoo hoard, and a corridor which formally held all the ‘unspeakable’ items…the mind boggles! In a particularly surreal moment we waited outside a conservation studio to be rejoined by Richard’s colleague, who pulled back a piece of cotton covering her basket to reveal we would be transporting some of the Lewis Chessmen pieces through the stores, but not to draw attention to that fact as we would be stopped and hassled for a look by every single member of staff.

Middle East Collections Care Manager, Wendy Adamson, took me first to the Middle East study room, based in the impressive Arched Room. What a sight! Table upon table of students studying cuneiform tablets. We then moved on to the stores, where I was shown everything from human remains and mummified hands to incantation bowls, exquisite jewels and jewelry, painted wall fragments, carvings, and pieces of pottery. I was interested to learn the department actively collects contemporary Middle Eastern art. Having expressed an interest in wall reliefs I was given access to a closed-to-the-public gallery. The former ‘Assyrian Life’ gallery was home to a number of Ashurbanipal’s Nimrud palace reliefs. Due to their demand elsewhere, both within and outside the museum, multiple wall panels have been removed, giving the room an eerie abandoned feel, as various panels remained in situ, and voices from visitors in adjacent rooms drifted into the gloomy, quiet space.

Finally, I was taken on a tour of the Greece and Roman stores by Alex Truscott. Alex had been kind enough to get out a few of the oldest Roman wall paintings from the stores for me to have a look at. We talked about the paint, their removal from their original setting, and the way they had been mounted and set in plaster. We were lucky enough to bump into one of the curators who was working on cataloguing artefacts from Ephesus, an ancient Greek city in modern day Selçuk, Turkey. Having recently returned, and having been able to see the site of one of the seven wonders of the world, the Temple of Artemis (where very little remains) from my holiday house, I was just a little excited to be shown into his store, where table upon table of carvings and sculptures from the two sites were laid out. Not being averse to confronting and acknowledging their own controversies, we commented that sometimes you travel half the world to see an ancient monument yet ultimately end up seeing more of it in the basements of the British Museum. On a personal level, I felt I had been put in an incredibly privileged position to ‘complete’ my trip in this way.

Thank you Sophie for sharing your account of a fabulous week, and for including wonderful photographs!

A Week at the British Museum

part one, by Visitor Service Staff Sophia Sample

At the beginning of last month, I spent a week at The British Museum as part of their VS Knowledge Circle programme. Overwhelmed by the success of their previous Knowledge Exchange programme and the number of applicants from Visitor Service staff, Georgia Mallin, programme manager, decided to pilot a new scheme giving VS staff the opportunity to experience life in other museums.

My week began with meeting VS Manger David Owen, who was to be my contact for the week. David took me on an initial tour of the museum, making sure to point out things of particular interest to me, including the oldest wall paintings on display. He talked me through the extraordinary amount of work the VS Team does on a day-to-day basis as we walked through the recently reopened gold-leafed China and South Asia gallery, marveled at the glass ceiling of the Great Court, and discussed dealing with controversy as we stood before the Parthenon Marbles. VS Team Leader Dimitra Kountiou acted as another week-long contact, looking after me incredibly well, allowing me to shadow her as she opened the museum, sharing with me some of the practical concerns and everyday problems the VS staff encounter, and finally accompanying me on a trip to the Wellcome Collection at the end of the week.

Having stated the importance of our volunteers at Salisbury Museum in my application, I was keen to meet with Volunteers Manager Francesca Goff, who last year took part in the Knowledge Exchange, spending a week with us. We spoke of the training volunteers receive, the object handling ‘Hands On’ desks, highlights tours and an initiative to encourage young volunteers to build confidence and skills essential for public-facing roles. Throughout the week I managed to speak with volunteers at all six ‘Hands On’ desks and attended a number of volunteer-facilitated gallery talks – I now know an awful lot more about Ancient Maya civilization than I ever thought I would!

Early in the week I had meetings with Paul Roberts, Ticketing and Information Manager, Natasha Berbank, Private Tours Manager, Claire Byfield, Membership Events Manager and Bryony Smith, Adult Programmes Events Manager. They gave me an insight into how the museum generates revenue through exhibitions, out-of-hours private tours, membership and patronage, and events. The majority of British Museum visitors are one-time visitors, and without a general admissions ticket that means most visitors spend little to nothing during their visit. They are therefore looking at new ways to engage with their audience and begin to draw people back with extra events, lectures, festivals and workshops.

Midweek I had the chance to visit the ‘I am Ashurbanipal, king of the world, king of Assyria’ exhibition. As a lover of all things Ancient and Assyrian, the exhibition was one of the main reasons I applied to the British Museum. I met and spoke with Carine Harmand, Project Curator, before attending her lecture, giving an overview of the rise and fall of Ashurbanipal’s Assyrian empire. You can see her below talking through the beautiful Assyrian reliefs from Ashurbanipal’s palace. The video also shows how lighting and projection were used in the exhibition to animate the reliefs. I was absolutely thrilled at the end of the week when David presented me with the exhibition catalogue as a goodbye present. It is still providing much enjoyment.

Another set of meetings I had were with staff involved in outreach and communication. I met with Emmerline Smyth, Community Partnerships Coordinator and Nicolette Hamilton, from Age Friendly Museums. They both work with encouraging new audiences in to the museum, those who may feel it isn’t a place they would feel comfortable. They shared ideas about initiatives including exhibition previews for community groups, GP-referred friendship groups for older people, appointing ‘Culture Champions’ in the community and making quiet seating and eating spaces available.

I also met with Eleanor Chant and her colleagues from the National Programmes team who organise loans and travelling exhibitions. I had met Eleanor previously when she was involved with bringing Hoards: A Hidden History of Ancient Britain to Salisbury Museum late last year. She was interested to hear how the VS staff had found the exhibition and how many visitors we’d had who themselves had discovered hoards. A particularly interesting session was with Rob Florance, Social Media Manager. He greeted me very ominously with ‘Sophia? I’ve seen your tweets…’, before introducing me to colleague Eloise and talking me through their extensive work covering everything from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and blog posts, to website articles and mail outs. I was impressed at the planning and forethought, having posts lined up weeks if not months in advance, and the interactions they have with curators and video production teams to ensure the highest quality, accurate information. We spoke about dealing with the negativity often encountered online and ways of dealing with it. Interesting in light of recent events in Salisbury!

In the next post I will share tales of my time behind-the-scenes…

PROMOTING THE REX WHISTLER ARCHIVE by Volunteer Christine Mason

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One of Rex Whistler’s paintings in the museum collection. Edith Olivier in garden of Daye House 1942

The artist Rex Whistler, 1905-1944, is less well known than his contemporary Eric Ravilious, 1903-1942.  One only has to look at the greetings cards in the museum shop to realise that.  Both were killed in World War II, both at the age of 39, and at the height of their powers with so much more to give.  Salisbury Museum is in a unique position to promote Rex Whistler’s work to a wider audience.

There have been retrospective exhibitions of Whistler, notably the Army Museum 1994, Brighton Art Gallery 2006 and Salisbury Museum 2013.  Whistler’s younger brother, Laurence, amassed a huge archive of everything and anything connected with his sibling, and this remained with the family after Laurence’s own death, and was purchased by the museum after the 2013 exhibition.  It is the most appropriate home for it, as a few years before his death Whistler had taken a lease on 69 The Close, a near neighbour of the museum.

As a volunteer steward at the 2013 exhibition, I was invited to an evening’s viewing of part of the archive soon after its arrival.  This was heaped on the tables in the Meetings Room, and it was almost impossible to pick out what to look at first, and the Director assured us it was only a small sample of the whole collection, which had never been fully catalogued.  In the five years since then, and most importantly, almost everything has been stored in protective sleeves where necessary, and proper storage boxes.  Where Laurence had put items into manila envelopes or similar, the contents have been removed, and the envelopes kept and added to the records, as they often provide clues on what they previously held.  The cataloguing continues, and the collection has been photographed.  As the cataloguing records are completed in longhand in pencil, the details are then transferred to Modes.

The cost of holding the archive did not stop with its purchase.  The materials for its protection are expensive, and some of the original works of art are in need of conservation, having been kept in unsuitable conditions or folded when they should have been stored flat.

The archive is, of course, available to bona fide researchers, and the Talking Objects scheme adopted by the museum during summer months, has given a wider public a taste of Whistler’s enormous talent in portraiture, mural painting, book illustration, film and theatre design, advertising, etc., etc.  This small selection also includes photographs and some of his correspondence, he being a reluctant but skilled letter writer, even though his spelling was always wobbly.

Initially I was asked to give an illustrated talk to fellow volunteers, which I did.  Subsequently I took this talk to an outside group, and a generous cheque was sent by them to the museum, and further bookings are in the pipeline with the possibility of more fees for the museum.

This gave me the idea of using the archive as performance matter, rather than lecture material, and early in 2018 it was agreed that something along those lines could be programmed into the museum’s events calendar.  I was given the date of 7th December to work towards, and I decided to base the evening on the correspondence tracing Whistler’s life from a 12 year old boy just starting at boarding school, through his work and the high society life of the 20s and 30s to his army service with the Welsh Guards from 1940 until his death in 1944.

This fascinating account of a Volunteer’s interest becoming a public performance is continued next week… Thank you Christine!

Snap Back in Time

During recent half-term week (Tuesday 19 February) there was much glee at the prospect of being able to dress up in period costume and have a photo taken – and that was just the adults!

In parallel with our major exhibition ‘The Origins of Photography in Salisbury 1839 – 1919’ running until 4 May, families were invited to be photographed in vintage style.

The families are keeping their photographs confidential but we have Volunteer Rodney Targett…

Thank you Rodney. Great photo!

Many thanks, as always, to all Volunteers who were here to help.

Defending the Country

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Labelled as: Uniform of Wilts Local Volunteers at Museum (taken) 1977

Volunteer Alan Clarke, who, as regulars will know, looks after our photographic archive, has sent in two apparently random photographs, from the collection, for us to enjoy.

But they are not random of course. Both the Home Guard of the 1940s and the local volunteers of the eighteenth century had taken on the same task- when all else failed, when the enemy was ‘at the gate’, they would defend it.

Home Guard Trophies Presented to Museum 1976

Volunteer forces were set up after 1859 when the government realised that half the British army was scattered to foreign parts, defending the Empire. In the Crimean War (1853- 56) even the yeomanry (volunteer cavalry regiments raised from landowners) had been sent out to make up numbers. Some arrangement was needed to defend things closer to home.

Wikipedia includes this about the volunteer forces:

  • Corps were only to be formed on the recommendation of the county’s lord-lieutenant.
  • Officers were to hold their commissions from the lord-lieutenant
  • Members of the corps were to swear an oath of allegiance before a justice of the peace, deputy lieutenant or commissioned officer of the corps.
  • The force was liable to be called out “in case of actual invasion, or of appearance of an enemy in force on the coast, or in case of rebellion arising in either of these emergencies.”
  • While under arms volunteers were subject to military law and were entitled to be billeted and to receive regular army pay.
  • Members were not permitted to quit the force during actual military service, and at other times had to give fourteen days notice before being permitted to leave the corps.
  • Members were to be returned as “effective” if they had attended eight days drill and exercise in four months, or 24 days within a year.
  • The members of the corps were to provide their own arms and equipment, and were to defray all costs except when assembled for actual service.
  • Volunteers were also permitted to choose the design of their uniforms, subject to the lord-lieutenant’s approval.
  • Although volunteers were to pay for their own firearms, they were to be provided under the superintendence of the War Office, so as to ensure uniformity of gauge.
  • The number of officers and private men in each county and corps was to be settled by the War Office, based on the lord-lieutenant’s recommendation.

The website of the Wardrobe, the museum of the infantry regiments of Berkshire and Wiltshire (also in the Close – a neighbour of ours), says this about our volunteer regiments, some early versions of which already existed in the county when things were formalised in 1859:

In 1860 the volunteer units were formed into two Battalions of Rifle Volunteers, each 1000 strong. The 1st covered the Southern half of the county with its headquarters at Salisbury, and included Wilton, Warminster, Westbury, Trowbridge and Bradford on Avon. The Northern half embraced the 2nd Battalion and included Devizes, Market Lavington, Chippenham, Calne, and Swindon. In the Cardwell reforms of 1881 the volunteer units were incorporated into the Regimental District. Before being organised into battalions the uniforms of the volunteer corps were bright varied and original. The Wiltshire uniforms were based on “Rifle green and black and remained so right up to 1914. The original uniform of the 1st Battalion was dark green with black lace, similar to that of the rifle brigade. The original Badge was two rakes crossed, with, in the centre, the historic barrel and moon of the Moonraker legend. It was consider merging the two battalions at this stage but no action was taken to facilitate this for twenty two years.  About 1889 the 1st and 2nd Battalions, Wiltshire Rifle Volunteers, were renamed respectively the 1st Wiltshire Volunteer Rifle Corps, and the 2nd Volunteer Battalion the Wiltshire Regiment. In 1900, during the Boer War, a volunteer Company was recruited from the two volunteer Battalions as reinforcement to the 2nd Battalion on active service in South Africa. The company was commanded by Viscount Folkestone, joining the Regiment in Bloemfontein in April 1900, and returned home at the completion of its year of service, having seen much active service, and having proved itself in all respects up to the standards of regular troops.

If you are interested in reading more, do visit their website, or plan a visit!

Whether or not the description of the uniform matches the one in our photo is for you to decide. Alan does not give us any clues. If there are any experts in military history amongst our readers it would be good to know exactly what the photograph does show. Some thoughts to be going on with – the colour of the uniform does not seem to be green, the style is earlier than 1859 (perhaps late 18th century) and the cap badge is probably GR – one of the Georges…..

Meanwhile, the very mention of the Home Guard raises a smile, due in part to a certain very popular comedy TV series. However, when Churchill said
“We shall fight on the beacheswe shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” it would have been the Home Guard which, amongst others, would have swung in to action. Road signs had already been taken down to try and confuse the enemy if they landed. Documents from the time (this sort of thing is available in local records offices), show that in one village in Dorset, the then secret orders to the Home Guard commander were, that in the case of a landing by the enemy. a cart should be pulled across the bridge on the outskirts in order to stop their advance. A cart.

Again, we may be tempted to smile, even mock, but imagine knowing that the cart was your last defence, that there would be nothing else you could do and you would be expected to do it. And they would have done, too…

From Wikipedia:

“The Home Guard (initially Local Defence Volunteers or LDV) was an armed civilian militia supporting the British Army. Operational from 1940 until 1944, the Home Guard was composed of 1.5 million local volunteers otherwise ineligible for military service, such as those too young or too old to join the regular armed services (regular military service was restricted to those aged 18 to 41); or those in reserved occupations. Excluding those already in the armed services, the civilian police or civil defence, approximately one-in-five men were volunteers. Their role was to act as a secondary defence force, in case of invasion by the forces of Nazi Germany and their allies.

The Home Guard were to try to slow down the advance of the enemy, even by a few hours in order to give the regular troops time to regroup; and also to defend key communications points and factories in rear areas against possible capture by paratroops or fifth columnists. The Home Guard continued to man roadblocks and guard the coastal areas of the United Kingdom and other important places such as airfields, factories and explosives stores until late 1944 when they were stood down, and finally disbanded on 31 December 1945, eight months after Germany’s surrender. Men aged 17 to 65 could join. Service was unpaid but gave a chance for older or inexperienced soldiers to support the war effort.”

Do any of our readers recognise any of the gentlemen in the photo? If so, please let us know who they are. Is there anyone amongst our volunteers who was in the Home Guard and could share a story? Please do contact Bridget if you can contribute on this.

Thank you Alan, as always. We look forward to more photos soon.

Thought Provoking…

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Chris Elmer

The Lecture Hall was packed last week for a Volunteer coffee morning which included a talk from Chris Elmer, lecturer at the University of Southampton, ‘It’s all in the mind: how museums make the past come alive’.

Chris is also one of the Trustees of The Salisbury Museum, has a wide-ranging background in museum work, especially museum education, and he has a PhD in Archaeology, looking at public engagement with archaeology. He is currently doing research into aspects of archaeology, running a community excavation and leading university students on fieldwork and other archaeology modules. A busy man who we are glad, found time for us last week.

It was a thought provoking talk which included some background to the history of museums and how they have changed over the last couple of centuries. The point was made that they are very variable today as ideas change about what the public are looking for. People come to be educated, as part of a social event (a family day out) and for any number of other reasons, even just to get out of the rain. All must be catered for. One man’s meat is another man’s….indigestion? The museums must survive, so finance is a factor. Race, gender, religion, what is history? are all problems…or are they opportunities? What about new technologies? Where is all going…?

In Britain, surveys have shown than the attraction of our museums is a major factor in foreigners coming here as tourists so all of this is important in that sense too.

In a nice finish Chris underlined the fact that in the end it is all about engagement and that the Volunteers present for the talk were largely engagement volunteers whose warmth, welcome and knowledge can overcome difficulties and override shortcomings. And you do.

Thanks Bridget for organising another excellent gathering.

BRILLIANT IDEA passed on by Volunteer Linda Robson

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Bridget asked in the last Volunteers blog if anyone had anything to include in the Volunteer Blog about what they do outside the museum. This made me think about something I have been doing for many years, OPC (on-line Parish Clerk) for Wiltshire. Basically you adopt a parish that has a vacancy and add any historical facts that they haven’t already got. I think I have five parishes, but you can take on just one and you don’t have to spend a lot of time on it. In fact, you can do as little or as much as you want to do.

The reason I am telling you all this, is that there are many vacancies at the moment and we need people like you that are interested in history. The benefit is that you became a lot more knowledgeable about the history of your chosen parish. I know I have ( if I can remember it !), and all this is done from your home.

Also, one of the other benefits is that you are able to regale people at social gatherings with fascinating facts like  did you know in  Wilton they found a mushroom  in 1787 that was 4ft 9 inches wide and 13lb 8oz in weight!  If the other person’s eyes glaze over as you are  talking , probably best to go on to talk about another exciting fact you have discovered!

You can contact Teresa Lewis at  www.wiltshire-opc.org.uk/genealogy or come and chat to me if you want to find out more.

Linda Robson

What a brilliant project and new to us… Thanks Linda!

STEREOPHOTOGRAPHY by Volunteer Alan Crooks

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The first exhibits to capture my attention when ‘The Origins of Photography in Salisbury, 1839-1913’ exhibition opened at Salisbury Museum in January were the stereophotographs and viewers (Fig 1).

This was because I was reminded of my own Vistascreen stereoviewer and stereocards, obtained free with Weetabix breakfast cereal during the 1960s (Fig 2).

Vistascreen was a system for viewing photographs or illustrations in 3D, which superseded and was similar in concept to the earlier Stereoview . The Vistascreen Co Ltd was formed in the UK in 1955. Although a competing View-Master system was already available at this time, the content of most of their ‘reels’ was of limited interest in the UK. View-Master ‘reels’ are thin cardboard discs containing seven pairs of small, transparent colour photographs on film, which were manufactured and sold by Sawyer’s (Fig 3). The components of each pair are viewed simultaneously, one by each eye, thus simulating binocular depth perception.

In Vistascreen, each card consists of two images, side-by-side, and taken from slightly different angle so that, when viewed together through a special viewer, a single stereoscopic image is produced. The Vistascreen stereoscope is a ‘lens stereoscope’ which consists of two simple  magnifying lenses mounted with a separation equal to the average interpupillary distance of the human eyes (6.5 cm).

Most of the original sets of black and white Vistascreen photographs were taken by ex-RAF  photographer Stanley Long using a 1920s Rollei Heidoscope stereo camera with a plate back. Picture cards were supplied in packs of 10 cards, and eventually almost 300 Vistascreen sets were produced. Most Vistascreen cards were sold as souvenirs at UK tourist attractions, but a small number of glamour photos were also available by mail order.

The original Vistascreen viewers were manufactured in ivory coloured plastic, with plastic lenses, and were designed to fold flat.

The Weetabix cereal company bought out Vistascreen in the 1960s, whereupon the viewers had the Weetabix logo embossed in gold on the viewer’s reverse (Fig 4).

Single cards were given away with Weetabix cereal in a promotion which lasted for several years and which featured six different sets of 25 cards; Working Dogs, Thrills, British Cars, British Birds, Animals and Our Pets. Viewers could be purchased by mail order directly from the Weetabix factory. The cards given away by Weetabix were of poorer quality than the original Vistascreen picture cards, which had a glossy, photographic finish.

I was interested to note that, recently (February 2018) a Weetabix 3D Vistascreen Viewer with 125 Stereo Cards was put up for sale on ebay for over £40 – including postage and packing.

In researching this article, I was interested to learn that Queen guitarist, Brian May, who has a pHD in Astrophysics from Imperial College, London, also has a long-standing interest in stereophotography, dating from the time when he himself collected Weetabix VistaScreen cards as a child. In an interview for the Daily Telegraph1 he commented, “I found it magical. I was in my own world with a stereoscope. It’s like having earphones on – you’re completely in contact with your subject matter.”

From collecting stereo cards May graduated into making his own, commenting, “I had an appetite for that stuff; so I took my two and sixpenny Woolworth’s camera and took two pictures of my bike. I stuck them on cardboard and put them in the Weetabix viewer and it worked.”

Stereoscopy works by replicating human vision using the phenomenon of parallax; the right eye sees a slightly different image to the left eye, but the brain fuses these together and constructs a 3D image. If one covers one eye, one will apparently still see in 3D, but this is, in fact, largely an illusion as the brain has adapted to use other depth cues such as shadows.  If one closes off one eye, the loss of perspective does, however, render the judging of distance to be more difficult.

Stereography began to make an impact during the early 1850s, being demonstrated at the Great Exhibition of 1851 at Crystal Palace. During Victorian times stereography was a very accessible and popular form of entertainment; most middle-class homes would have had a stereo viewer and a stack of cards. It was also possible to hire a viewer for an evening, and to borrow cards from a library. The less affluent could see them at fairs whilst, at the other end of the social spectrum, Queen Victoria herself had several hundred cards. At the height of its popularity in the 1860s, thousands of stereo cards were produced and sold from the Oxford Street premises of the London Stereoscopic Company (LSC) which had a Royal Warrant. The majority of cards depicted built or natural wonders, such the pyramids, glaciers and the Crumlin Viaduct in Wales – but the market for sentimental tableaux and supernatural scenes was also large.

The London Stereoscopic Company was dissolved in 1922 but, in 2008, Brian May, together with a fellow enthusiast and photo-historian, Denis Pellerin,  resurrected the company and hope one day to publish stereo cards again. Meanwhile, Pellerin is cataloguing and researching May’s collection, which is one of the biggest in Britain .

1. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/photography/11174296/brian-may-queen-stereo-3D-photography-pictures.html