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By Mark Green on

How Brian May found a lost 19th century village

On 19 November 2009, we'll play host to an intriguing event with the two authors of A Village Lost and Found, a new book dedicated to the stereoscopic imagery of 19th century photographer TR Williams.

Colin Harding, our Curator of Photographic Technology, will be introducing the aforementioned authors: photographic historian Elena Vidal, and Brian May. Yes, that Brian May.

Brian has been fascinated with 3D images since childhood, and he’s spent decades collecting and researching a particular series of Williams’ photos, all of which were taken in the same village in the mid-1800s. The book is an exhaustive study of both the pictures and the mystery village itself—which Brian finally tracked down after years of fruitless searching.

Ahead of the event, we got the chance to interview Brian about his work and research…

What kickstarted your interest in stereoscopic photography?

You used to get little 3D cards squeezed between the inner bag and the box of Weetabix packets. The first ones I ever remember were animals: groups of lions and tigers and hippos and things. it was the first time I’d ever seen a proper stereo image, and I was astounded. I thought it was really magic: two flat and fairly boring-looking pictures spring into something so real, you feel you could walk through the window and be there.

Why did TR Williams begin to interest you in particular?

Corn into the Granary and Old Dancy, two of the TR Williams images reproduced in the book

I was always aware of the mystery in the TR Williams images. They were very rare. I think I would find one TR Williams card in probably 500 cards or 1000 cards, if I was lucky.

But what really interested me was the beauty of the images themselves. It’s a very different matter to compose pictures in three dimensions rather than two. Some of Williams’ pictures look actually quite odd if you just view them normally—but once they’re in the viewer, you’re aware of the amazing compositional power Williams had, to invite you into the picture and make you feel you were almost a part of it.

I was aware early on that there was a very big untold story here, because I couldn’t find any reference to TR Williams in the books at the time that told me anything that I wanted to know. So I resolved there and then that I would try to get the bottom of the mystery, and that if I could unravel it all I would have something great to share with the world.

So you set out to find the village pictured in his 59-card series, ‘Scenes in Our Village’.

There was talk of ‘Scenes in Our Village’ series being a mirror, a kind of bringing to life of an ancient book called Our Village by Mary Russell Mitford. That was the word on the street when I started looking into this, that perhaps he’d taken his pictures in her village.

The other thing that was normally said was that it was actually a number of different views from different villages throughout England. I realised this was wrong early on: the more you look, the more it becomes obvious that Williams isn’t just showing you what village life is like, he’s talking about people’s interactions with each other—their dreams, hopes, problems, hardships. He’s talking about the village’s relationship with nature, with their God, and of course with the thing that keeps them alive: the land.

I looked for the village for ages, I drove around looking for the church, which seemed to be the most obvious landmark and the one which might not have been destroyed. Whenever I was journeying I would be looking out for Norman towers and clocktowers. Never found it.

And then you had an idea…

I published a picture of the church on my website. I just had this sudden flash of inspiration that somebody must live near this church and it might well be somebody who read my website. So I published the picture—and within 36 hours, six different people in different parts of the world had come up with the right answer.”

They told me it was Hinton Waldrist in Oxfordshire. One of the reasons I’d missed is that Oxfordshire had moved in the meantime. Someone had moved the boundaries—I think in the 1930s—so the village now sits in Oxfordshire whereas it was in Berkshire in the 1850s.

That really was a turning point. That’s the point that Elena and I realised we really could write the book, because we could research the village in the present day and relate it to how it had been in TR Williams’ day. Really do a proper job.

Why did the village stay ‘lost’ for so long?

I don’t think it’s an accident. There’s no reference to the name of the village anywhere within the cards or any of the literature—not that there is much literature. I think we know why. I think it’s because Williams was rather revealing of the villages themselves, and not always complimentary. I think he was keeping the village safe, and perhaps keeping himself out of trouble by keeping it shrouded in mystery.

You worked with David Burder to develop the OWL—the sterescopic viewer that’s included with the book.

David’s been my friend for many years. We were both members of the English Stereoscopic Society more than 30 years ago. He’s Mr 3D. if you want to know about 3D, he’s the man you call, the most knowledgeable person in the world.

David put me in touch with a few people who were making stereoscopic viewers—but nothing quite worked. Nobody could really come up with something that I felt would do the job properly. So I made a design in cardboard, the way I thought it could be done, and started talking to people about how they could be manufactured. David came to the rescue again and put me in touch with a wonderful injection-moulding company. And we set about adapting my design into a mass-produced form. And I’ve had a fantastic time doing it.

The other interesting part of the story is that David said to me, ‘Yes, you can do this, you can design a viewer that’s probably better than anything that’s ever been done, but it can’t be folding up and going in a book and still focus. You’ll never do it.’ And there came a point when I took the scissors to one of my initial cardboard efforts and basically made the two halves slide into each other, and—hey presto—that was the focusing viewer and that was the basis for the final OWL design.

So David’s very happy to have been proved wrong!

You’ve resurrected the 1800s London Stereoscopic Company with a website: are you planning to sell images and viewers just as they were doing over 100 years ago?

You can’t do everything at once, and our first priority was to get the website up there and define our aims, and provide an information service. Second thing was to get the book done. And yes, now, we are definitely looking towards trying to publish some stereo pictures—which will go very nicely with the viewer. So our motto will be ‘An OWL in Every Home’.

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