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L Is For London Stereoscopic Company… The Home Of 100,000 Views

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After a brief hiatus, let’s return to my alphabetical journey through the National Photography Collection with a brief history of the instrument which links Queen Victoria to the guitarist from rock band Queen.

During a visit to the Great Exhibition in 1851, Queen Victoria expressed her delight with the three dimensional effect of a pair of daguerreotypes seen through a binocular view called a stereoscope.

Brewster Pattern Hand Stereoscope, c. 1860 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Brewster Pattern Hand Stereoscope, c. 1860 © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The inventor of this instrument, the Scottish scientist Sir David Brewster, subsequently presented the Queen with a stereoscope, thereby sparking a craze for stereoscopic photography.

David Brewster, c. 1866, London Stereoscopic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

David Brewster, c. 1866, London Stereoscopic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Soon stereoscopes were to be found in practically every middle class Victorian parlour. The demand for viewers and stereoscopic pairs of photographs was enormous and the leading supplier in the world was the London Stereoscopic Company.

In 1854 George Swan Nottage founded the London Stereoscope Company at 313 Oxford Street, London. Within a couple of years the company name had changed to its more familiar form. Nottage, incidentally, went on to become the Lord Mayor of London in 1885 and is buried in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Fountain in Majolica Ware, 1862, London Stereoscopic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Fountain in Majolica Ware, 1862, London Stereoscopic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Adopting the advertising slogan ‘A Stereoscope in Every Home’, within two years the company had sold more than 500,000 stereoscopes and had 10,000 titles in its catalogue of stereo cards. By 1858 they claimed to have an incredible 100,000 views available.

The variety of subjects ranged from exotic views of faraway places to English views and buildings, humorous tableaus and scenes of everyday life. They commissioned photographers to travel all over the world, bringing back images. In 1862 alone the company sold one million stereoscopic views.

The Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, c. 1870, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commns BY-NC-SA

The Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, c. 1870, London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commns BY-NC-SA

When the craze for stereo cards began to fade in the late 1860s, the company diversified into the newer fashion for carte de visite portraits. The company by this time had changed its name to the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company.

The business continued to thrive and they also moved into selling cameras, chemicals, photographic papers and plates. For a little while they were even involved in the music business, purchasing the exclusive business rights to the Edison phonograph in 1878.

The Artists camera, 1889, London Stereoscopic Company Ltd. © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

The Artists camera, 1889, London Stereoscopic Company Ltd. © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Following World War I, the company fell on leaner times and in 1922, after nearly 70 years, the London Stereoscopic Company went into voluntary liquidation. Thousands of their large format glass negatives were recycled for greenhouse glass but in 1947 about 40,000 smaller negatives were acquired by the Hulton Picture Library (now part of Getty Images) where they are now preserved.

Stereo Panoramic Camera, London Stereoscopic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Stereo Panoramic Camera, London Stereoscopic Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

It seemed as if the London Stereoscopic Company had disappeared into photographic history. In 2008, however, the company was reborn after the name was purchased by Elena Vidal and Brian May.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog (or, indeed a Brian May fan) you’ll know that he is a stereo photography enthusiast and a leading authority on TR Williams, a photographer whose work was published by the London Stereoscopic Company in the 1850s.

Les Vendenges en Enfer [The Grape Harvest in Hell], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

Les Vendenges en Enfer [The Grape Harvest in Hell], back lit, 1868, National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

A few weeks ago we told you about Les Diableries, a fascinating and unusual series of stereo photographs showing some of the riotous goings-on in Hell. A new book on the subject co-authored by Brian May, Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming was published earlier this month.

Quite perfect for this time of year, don’t you think?

Further reading and interesting links

Written by Colin Harding

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