Oldest Family Photograph of Stonehenge, Found in the Collection of Dr. Brian May, to go on Public Display…in 3-D!

Oldest Family Photograph of Stonehenge, Found in the Collection of Dr. Brian May, to go on Public Display…in 3-D!

When English Heritage published a photo of a family day out at Stonehenge in 1875 to celebrate the launch of their exhibition “Your Stonehenge” they issued a challenge for people to sort through their old photos and find an earlier family snap taken at the ancient stones.

Among the pictures sent in from across the world was one from the early 1860s, taken by a man named Henry Brooks, of his family enjoying a day out at Stonehenge. The 3D image, or stereo card, was discovered in the collection of Dr. Brian May, lead guitarist of rock band Queen, by the two curators of what has now become the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy, Denis Pellerin and Rebecca Sharpe. The curators researched the card, the photographer and his family and discovered who was in the image. This prompted them to get in touch with English Heritage with their research during the first lockdown in England and set the wheels in motion for having it on public display.

Slightly faded with a smudged photographer’s stamp on the back, the print shows the photographer’s wife Caroline smiling with her cheek resting on her finger and a parasol by her feet. His daughter Caroline Jane is sat next to her, and son Frank has turned his back, perhaps observing the precarious angle of the ‘Leaning Stone’, which was later straightened in 1901. 

Stereoscopy was announced to the world by Sir Charles Wheatstone in 1838 and first became popular in the 1850s and 1860s. Two images of the same scene are taken from slightly different perspectives, which correlate to the two different perspectives of the human eyes. When the images are pasted side-by-side, like in the Henry Brooks stereo card, each eye sees its respective image separately, sometimes by using a stereoscope to help, and the brain perceives depth and fuses the images into a single 3-D image.

When this stereoview was photographed, exposure times were long and photographers would have had to ask their subjects to stay still for quite a long time; in Brooks’ case not just once either, but twice when using a single lens camera to make stereoviews. Perhaps the friends and relatives of the photographer could be persuaded to freeze but not so the tourists in the background. In the bright sunlight, as seen in this image, the gentleman in a top hat has moved during the two exposures and appears as a ghostly figure on the right hand side and a woman at the far back on the left has disappeared completely between shots. 

This stereoview, and other Victorian stereo cards of Stonehenge from the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy, have been digitised and made into a moving video. Along with modern-day stereoviews of Stonehenge, taken by Dr. Brian May, Denis Pellerin and Rebecca Sharpe, and set to an instrumental version of Queen’s ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’, performed by Brian May, you can view these images in stereoscopic 3-D in the ‘Your Stonehenge’ exhibition at the Stonehenge visitor centre until the end of September 2021. The stereoscopic cabinet has been specially designed and made by Dr. May’s team and contains two of his own-design stereoscopic viewers, or OWLs.

The stereoscopic cabinet with two digital displays, through which you can see the Brooks’ stereoview, along with more Victorian and modern 3-D photographs of Stonehenge (photo taken just after it had been delivered to Stonehenge Visitor Centre).

Queen guitarist, astrophysicist and stereoscopic enthusiast Brian May said, “I’ve been fascinated by stereo cards since I was a boy and got one in a cereal packet! This is a fantastic early example and exciting because it’s one of the oldest family snaps taken at Stonehenge. It feels even more evocative when set to music – a bit like a silent movie. We think it will be great fun for everyone to try to create similar stereoviews and breathe new life into an old photo.”

Modern Recreation with Dr. Brian May photographed by Rebecca Sharpe (top), 1860s stereoview by Salisbury photographer Henry Brooks of his family at Stonehenge (below). Victorian image reproduced by kind permission of the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy.

The full research into Henry Brooks and this stereo card by Denis Pellerin and Rebecca Sharpe can be found here.

Dr. May and his curators were interviewed as part of the Livestream of Summer Solstice Sunrise at Stonehenge, they discussed the Brooks stereoview, its significance to Stonehenge and stereoscopy in general and can be found here.

Denis Pellerin was also interviewed by American news show CBS: This Morning Saturday, about the stereo card, filmed by R. Sharpe, and this was televised on Saturday 14th August 2021. You can watch it on CBS’s website.

There are stories in the media published today about this stereoview, but please take most of them with a pinch of salt as some of the journalists have tried to make an exclusive with information they’ve made up. It is definitely not Dr. May’s family in the image, and the modern-day image of Dr. May was not taken by Victorian photographer Henry Brooks 😉 I guess accuracy and details aren’t always what sell the most stories! The BBC story, which is a bit more accurate than the others, can be found here. The original English Heritage press-release can be found here and they are calling for any descendants of the photographer to get in touch with them. Despite the inaccuracies and a few important details being omitted, I must say it’s exciting to see this stereoview (especially as it’s not the most expensive or pristine), reaching such a large modern audience and helping to educate people about stereoscopy. I feel extremely proud of those who have worked hard on this project to get stereoscopy in the spotlight, and what an outreach this grubby and once-forgotten stereoview has achieved already! Some people remember the View-Masters of their youth and use 3D VR now, but they don’t always realise that this was a Victorian discovery, or the importance of the images. It is also nice to see Henry Brooks being recognised again; when I was first in touch with some local historians I was really surprised to find that they didn’t know anything about his photography, or indeed what stereoscopic 3D is! I’m also hoping it encourages people to look again at any grubby or faded stereoviews they may have, it might even help us discover more of Brooks’ stereo images.

If you’d like to take on Dr. May’s challenge and create a stereoview at Stonehenge, you can find tutorials on making stereoviews with smartphones here for iPhones and here for Android. You can access the middle of the stone circle through Stonehenge’s exclusive ‘Stone Circle Experience’, but please be aware that you’re no longer allowed to touch or sit on the stones.

Brooks’ 1860s stereoview (above) and modern-day recreation captured with a smartphone (below). Bottom images photographed by Denis Pellerin using an iPhone and edited by Rebecca Sharpe. Victorian image reproduced by kind permission of the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy.

For those unable to visit the stereoscopic cabinet at the Stonehenge exhibition, which is running until at least September 2021, please do not despair. I will update this blog post with the details when they’re available.

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6 thoughts on “Oldest Family Photograph of Stonehenge, Found in the Collection of Dr. Brian May, to go on Public Display…in 3-D!

    1. Good morning Martin, thank you very much for the link. The stereoview ‘selfies’ you have of a lady with a stereoscopic camera are really wonderful and beautiful! It looks like she’s using a Verascope camera and the glass slide format confirms it.

      I’ve a few post about Verascope glass slides because I really enjoy viewing them, thanks so much for sharing yours.

      Take care,
      Rebecca

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  1. Good Morning Rebecca, Thanks for your nice words. Like I said in one of my posts, glass positives are more than “normal” photos, they have the extraordinary visual and haptic quality of prehistorical material preserved in amber – they preserved time in glass.
    Best from Cologne
    Martin

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    1. Dear Martin,

      I’d be interested to know your thoughts on daguerreotypes in comparison or even alongside them, I’m fascinated by the photographic technique.

      I love how both daguerreotypes and glass positives are so detailed. In stereoscopic 3-D it’s really like stepping back into the moment in time with the photographer and feels really profound at times, especially when you notice tiny details personal to the photographer/sitter, which might not have been seen for over a Century!

      Kind regards,
      Rebecca 🙂

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  2. Yes, I like the daguerreotypes too, they are at the second place of my personal ranking 🙂 And they remind me a little bit of some printing matrix from a theatre prospect I own and which are showing ballet dancers.
    Best from Cologne

    Martin

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