Saturday 17 October 2015

In 3-D!

Yesterday I went to Tate Britain by way of Reading. This was not my intention. My intention had been to go to Oxford to see a new exhibition of Venetian drawings at the Ashmolean. However, at Reading station my train stopped, and stayed stopped, and stayed stopped, until eventually the announcement came: a 'points failure' at Didcot Parkway. After some while mooching about on Reading station - a depressing place at the best of times - while Oxford trains were announced, moved from platform to platform and eventually cancelled, I concluded that the best policy would be to cut my losses and get on a train back to London. I should have known: Reading station and I have history, none of it good...
 So, an hour and a bit later, there I was in Tate Britain - where I came across an extraordinary one-room exhibition called Poor Man's Picture Gallery. This chronicles the mid-Victorian craze for 'stereographs', three-dimensional photographs, inspired by popular paintings. The room was hung with a selection of such paintings, including Henry Wallis's Chatterton [above], Millais's The Order of Release, Frith's Derby Day and R.B. Martineau's The Last Day in the Old Home - and, next to them, original stereographs (pairs of small albumen prints, often hand-tinted, mounted on card). These are not very impressive in themselves, but happily there are two viewing cabinets containing facsimile stereocards that can be looked at through the kind of binocular device you might remember from childhood 3-D viewers. Get the focus right, the two images fuse into one and, bang, there you are - the death of Chatterton in 3-D!
 I was startled to learn that most of these (very rare) Victorian stereocards are from the collection of Brian May Esq, CBE, PhD, FRAS, a man of many parts, but still best known as the badger-loving, poodle-haired Queen guitarist. He's been collecting stereoscopic images for years and has co-authored a mighty tome to go with this exhibition.
 As well as being the best painting in the room, Henry Wallis's Chatterton (showing the suicide of the17-year-old proto-Romantic poet) is also the most impressive 3-D image, and the most faithful to the original picture - so faithful, in fact, that the photographer who created the stereograph was sued for breach of copyright. (He lost too, but oddly no further cases were brought against any stereographer.) Robinson himself posed for the stereo image, but Wallis's model was the flame-haired young poet George Meredith, who at the time was married to Mary Ellen Nicolls, a beautiful and spirited widow, daughter of Thomas Love Peacock. Not long after the picture was painted, Mary Ellen left Meredith for Henry Wallis - a painful break-up that inspired Meredith to write Modern Love, one of English poetry's greatest sonnet sequences.
 The Tate exhibition ends on November 1st, so don't delay if you want to see it.

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