‘The Nature Stereoscopic Club’: A Snapshot into a 1920s Circulating Postal Portfolio Group

‘The Nature Stereoscopic Club’: A Snapshot into a 1920s Circulating Postal Portfolio Group

I’m very lucky to have in my collection a set of stereocards from 1927 and 1928 from members of The Nature Stereoscopic Club. I’ve finally tracked down each of the contributors, despite their handwriting, and I thought I’d share the members’ biographies, which I’ve cobbled together, their stereoscopic images, and the deciphered feedback. First, let’s take a look at what early circulating postal photographic portfolio groups were.

Circulating Postal Photographic Portfolio Groups

I’m going to quote from a 2021 paper by Sara Dominici, who researched how the launch of the Royal Mail’s parcel post service in 1883 enabled amateur photographers in Britain to come together through a new network, using circulating portfolios. The paper is ‘The Postal Service, Circulating Portfolios and the Cultural Production of Modern Networked Identities’ and can be found here and here.

Describing postal photographic clubs, Dominici explains “Their appeal was remarkable, affording many photographers, including those who could not join ordinary photographic clubs and societies – because, for instance, of geographical distances or work commitments – the opportunity to connect with like-minded peers. At a time when the number of amateur photographers was soaring, and cultural activities were seen as a signifier of class and respectability, these ‘small circles’ were considered by contemporary commentators like Lund* as a way for photographers to participate in polite society and, in doing so, to advance one’s knowledge of ‘photographic art and technique’.”

Ralph Chislett, whose stereoviews you’ll see in this post, described one of these circulating portfolio groups, the Zoological Photographic Club and its purposes as “…founded with the object of furthering the pursuit of serious photography of wild life and to enable nature photographers to pool their knowledge and experience. It has of necessity a limited membership, since it functions by means of the circulating portfolio, to which each member is expected to contribute a print. The portfolio (there were several in circulation at one time) passes from member to member in a prearranged order, and the folders in which the prints are enclosed, gather on their journey the comments and criticisms** of all members. Thus the less experienced receive the invaluable advice of older hands, who profit in their turn by contact with the fresh outlook.”

Dominici explains, as seems to be the case with ‘The Nature Stereoscopic Club’, that these postal photographic clubs usually had an ephemeral nature, and have therefore left very few archival traces. This is another reason why I feel so fortunate to have this little collection, and now I’m making sure it’s researched and shared!

*Percy Lund, editor of Practical Photographer in 1899.

**I should add the use of the word ‘criticisms’ in this context is used to indicate the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of an artistic work, it does not always indicate a negative connotation; it is more aligned with ‘critique’ and being constructive. It shouldn’t be thought of in the same way as today’s usual destructive criticism bitchfest.

Ralph Chislett: Biography

Ralph Chislett, or R.C. as he preferred to be known, was born on 2nd June 1883 in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, to Thomas and Sarah Chislett (née Wragg). In 1891, Thomas was described as a bank cashier and lived with his wife, sons R.C. and Thomas Jnr, and Frances Laughton, a domestic servant. In 1901, R.C., at the tender age of 17, was living elsewhere in Rotherham where he described himself as the ‘head’ of the household. He lived with two younger brothers, Thomas Jnr (15) and William (6), his Aunt Olive Wragg (21), who was presumably babysitting, and Martha Slater (17), a domestic servant. R.C.’s parents were on holiday in Scarborough at the time of this census, clearly they were enjoying a break without the kids!

In 1911, R.C. and his brothers were still living with their parents in Rotherham, Thomas Snr was now a bank manager, R.C. a chartered accountant, Thomas Jnr a banker’s clerk and William a law student; later that year, R.C. married Agnes Lillian Wiles, daughter of a railway agent. R.C. was still a chartered accountant in 1939, involved in government war work, and remained in this profession until his retirement in 1945, when he and Agnes moved from Rotherham to Masham, North Yorkshire.

R.C. reported that he started bird watching in 1905, and that every holiday and any spare time he had afterwards was spent devoted to his pursuit of birds, crediting his beginnings of field ornithology to (more initials) H.V., F.W.M., and C.E.H. He said he got his first camera before 1908, and credited Richard Kearton as an influence on his bird photography, with his first bird photographs being of a robin on a bird-table.

In 1922, he entered 12 stereoscopic slides into the Royal Photographic Society (RPS)’s annual exhibition. All of them were of wild birds, including a nightingale, reed bunting, young nightjar, yellowhammer and stone curlews. R.C. was awarded an RPS medal for a mono print he also exhibited that year, titled ‘Variations in the Plumage of the Artic Skua’. In 1923, he was made a fellow of the RPS, and he also gave a lantern lecture on ‘The Bird Life in North Isles of Shetland’ there on the 27th February. During this presentation, the RPS’s president, Mr. Wastell, described him as “one of the best exponents of bird life”. High praise indeed!

Below you will find a photograph of R.C. from the 1920s, with one of his cameras and photography tent.

Over the years, R.C. was a member of the British Ornithologists’ Union, the president of the Zoological section of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union, the president of the Rotherham Naturalists’ Society, an Officer of the Nature Photography Society, and a member of the Yorkshire Wild Bird Protection Acts Committee.

R.C. travelled far and wide for his love of birds, including remote areas of North-West Europe. He used the photographs he took on these trips to illustrate his first book ‘Northward Ho for Birds’ (1932). In this book, he states that he could never collect eggs and he had the utmost respect for wildlife and nature:

“In respect of the wild life, and the beauty of our country, we are life-tenants, entitled to use, but not to waste or destroy. The life-tenants are also trustees for the next generation. Let us be worthy trustees, and make it a point of honour that act of ours shall not contribute towards the despoilment of any of those amenities which can add charm to the lovely face of England, of Britain. The forces of civilisation will march on ; but those who really love the face of their country will exercise care not to despoil it.”


He gave wildlife lantern lectures, illustrated with his beautiful photographs, wrote journal articles, especially for the RPS, Country Life and British Birds, and exhibited his work throughout most of his life. There’s a really lovely article by R.C. in the 1927 RPS Journal’s ‘The Year’s Photography’, titled ‘Achievements and Potentialities – Natural History Photography’, where you can also see some examples of his mono wildlife images.

After his retirement, R.C. apparently stepped back from photography, but still continued his work in ornithology, writing two further books, ‘Yorkshire Birds’ (1952 – with photographs by himself and others) and ‘Birds of the Spurn Peninsula – Part 1’ (1958 – containing no photographs). He was one of the four founders of the Spurn Bird Observatory, a nature reserve which ringed its first bird in 1945, and still exists today, being an invaluable resource for research and science.

In 1963, Leeds University conferred on him an honorary MSc in recognition of his services to ornithology.

He was described by his contemporaries as a ‘legend’ Yorkshireman who didn’t suffer fools gladly:

“Forthright in criticism where he saw faults, he was at the same time generous in help and advice. Although his reaction on receiving a request for information would often be, “Does this chap think I’ve nothing better to do with my time than to sort out information to help him get a doctorate?”, he seldom failed to meet such requests, and acknowledgments of his help accompany innumerable papers in ornithological journals over the past two or three decades. His outspokenness had become something of a by-word. It could be devastating. But those of us who knew him well knew also of an underlying warm-heartedness, a strong sense of justice, an ability to laugh at himself – and there was always the warmest of welcomes at Brookside for any visiting ornithologist both from Ralph, and from his wife.”

R.F.D., 1964

I’ve since found that this is R. F. Dickens, another ornithologist, photographer and member of the Yorkshire Naturalists’ Union Wild Bird Protection Acts Committee, from Leighton Buzzard.

R.C. passed away aged 80 on the 19th February 1964 at Friarage Hospital, North Allerton. His probate was to Charles Joseph Chislett, a bank manager and his cousin (also a very good wildlife photographer and an associate member of the RPS, who passed away in 1991), Adrian Martin Christopher Staniforth, a chartered accountant, and solicitor Francis Edward Patrick Heddon. Agnes Chislett, who R.C. described as “My companion at home and in the field, who has watched birds with me on every trip”, passed away a few years later, on 25th October 1972, in Masham.

Ralph Chislett’s Stereoscopic Photographs

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The Nature Stereoscopic Club
Folio: B Date: August 29 1927
Member’s Name: Ralph Chislett
Subject: Redwing at Nest
Remarks: A species which I found as an adult to be rather wild & difficult, occasionally with the grubs we brought as food came a few oran berries.

– This is a beauty in every way.
– Perfect is the only word I know to describe it.
– Very fine indeed. Splendid work.
– A joy to see.
– Excellent in every way.
– A fine R.C. (Ralph Chislett) gem.
– Very fine indeed. What a wonderful worker you are.
– A perfect slide.
– Excellent – as usual.
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The Nature Stereoscopic Club
Folio: B Date: Jan 5/ 1928
Member’s Name: Ralph Chislett
Subject: Reeve
Remarks: (Removal of velvets has since mitigated the pest of light margins I was getting on stereo negatives)

– I think it the best Reeve Photograph (stereo or otherwise) I ever saw. Couldn’t you correct the uneven densities* by local sunning down?
– At first I thought the velvets had something to do with plumage! As seen in the scope the light margins are not at all conspicuous. A fine slide of a bird little photographed.
– A real beauty in spite light left-handed print.
– A splendid slide.
– The bird is fine, but other points of slide are not up to your usual standard.
– Very good.

*Thanks to Rob for deciphering ‘correct the uneven densities’. I’d been stumped on this!

John Alfred Sharpe: Biography

John Alfred Sharpe was born in 1865 in Ridgmont, Bedfordshire to John Sharpe, a tailor and confectioner, and Maria Sharpe (née Spring, daughter of a sawyer). He had two younger sisters, Mary Maria and Flora Caroline, and three older brothers, Frank Spring, Thomas John and James Harry. In 1881, aged just 17, he had already moved away from home, and was working as an apprentice shopman at the Grocer’s shop of Thomas Roberts, in High Street, Lewes, Sussex. His mother was now a Post Mistress, living with her children James (24 – a painter) and Mary (15 – a dressmaker) at Ridgmont Post Office.

John Alfred’s father was not in the 1881 census, and I had assumed he had passed away. I’ve since found that in this year John senior was 5 foot and 5 or 6 inches high, with a pale complexion, dark hair, little or no whiskers, dark eyes, the front teeth in his upper jaw were large and projecting, he had thin features, and a prominent nose; he was usually dressed in a dark or brown suit, and a soft billycock hat; he was also a quick walker! How do I know this? He absconded from nearby Ampthill after being charged on warrant of embezzlement. I’m not sure what happened to him, as he didn’t appear on any census afterwards, presumably he must have walked REALLY quickly.

John Alfred Sharpe continued working as a grocer’s assistant at Lewes High Street, and remained in Lewes for the rest of his life, never marrying. I’m unsure when or how he got into nature photography, but in 1922, he was exhibiting his photographs at the RPS’s 67th annual exhibition in London, alongside Ralph Chislett and Alfred Tonge. John’s images in the natural history section included a bladder campion flower, a spider’s snare, a broom, a beech-tuft mushroom, a White Admiral butterfly, and scarlet fly cap and Dryad’s saddle mushrooms.

John was the lanternist and member of the Lewes Scientific and Literary Society’s Photographic Section, and a member of the Lewes Camera Club. Around the same time as he made the stereoscopic image below, he gave a lantern lecture, using his own photographs, titled ‘With Nature and a Camera’ for the Pleasant Monday Society. It was apparently most enjoyable and his slides were described in the news as ‘remarkable’. He was often awarded prizes for his nature photographs and regularly received praise in the press for his lantern presentations, which he continued for many years. As well as nature, John also photographed the castles and priories of Sussex and English lakes.

John not only photographed wildlife, he was also a beekeeper, and I’ll add details about this soon.

John lived to the ripe old age of 91 years old, and passed away at the General Hospital, Brighton, on 21st March 1955. His probate was left to Edward Ernest Dennis, a retired pisciculturist (a fish breeder!) and Harry Ernest Higgs, a fellow retired grocer.

John Alfred Sharpe‘s Stereoscopic Photograph

John couldn’t have been too impressed with the Stereoscopic Club, and, starting a long-standing Sharpe tradition, he left soon afterwards. On the back of his only envelope is written “Sorry you have left us. We shall miss your fine work.”

The prints seem to have suffered with time, you’ll notice the white spots. I suspect that this is due to inadequate fixing or washing, as none of the envelopes or cards appear to be mouldy.

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The Nature Stereoscopic Club
Folio: D. Date: August 1927.
Member’s Name: J. A. Sharpe
Subject: Nest of Long Tailed Tit.
Remarks: This nest was situated in a good position for photography and I hoped to obtain pictures of the birds, unfortunately, the nest was pulled out and destroyed before I could do so.

– Excellent – Down to learn the nest has been destroyed.
– Very good. I am surprised at the absence of foliage.
– Oh the species often nests early in the year. The slide shows everything very well, including the value of stereoscopy. R.C. (Ralph Chislett)
– Quite a success I think.
– A very good slide. These early coniferous nests often go wrong. I had one brought to me last year by a gentleman who had found it in a whitethorn hedge, no leaves. He was so struck with its beauty that he brought it away. Needless to say any remarks to them were not complementary.
– This species is one of our earliest nesters. What a difference the people make!!
– Jolly hard luck not to get the birds. A fine slide.
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Alfred Ernest Tonge: Biography

Alfred Ernest Tonge was born on 11th October 1870, at Cheetham Hill, Lancashire, to John Wilding Tonge, a salesman, and Jane Tonge (née Murgatroyd). Alfred had an elder brother, John Henry, who in 1891 (age 23), was an electrical engineer. In this year, Alfred (21) was described as a commercial traveller, and the whole family had moved to Ilford, Essex. From his boyhood, Alfred collected British butterflies and moths, and this was a life-long passion as he became an eminent entomologist.

On 15th May 1895, Alfred married Ethel Mary Grigs (daughter of a Master mariner, who died from injuries sustained at sea in 1876) in Ilford. It’s possible to make an educated guess that Ethel was Alfred’s photography influence. In 1891 her stepfather, John Howson, was the manager of a photographic dry plate works, where her mum Alice Elizabeth Howson (previously Grigs, née Robinson) and Ethel herself worked. Quite amusingly, Ethel Grigs is mentioned in several newspapers in the late 1880s and early 1890s as being a famous ‘Lady Whistler’. She was described on occasions as being American, but she was born in Hackney. She performed frequently in theatres in London and Kent to great acclaim.

The Tonge family eventually moved to Reigate, Surrey, with their daughter Clarice Barbara, who was born in 1898. In 1901, Alfred was still listed as a commercial traveller for a match manufacturer and three years later he and Ethel had a second daughter, Amorel Joyce. Alfred obviously enjoyed Reigate, and lived there for the rest of his life, playing Hockey with the local Redhill team, and later joining the 4th Battalion Surrey Volunteer Regiment, becoming a sergeant in 1916.

Along with Ralph Chislett, Alfred was an Officer of the Nature Photography Society. He was also a Fellow of the Entomological Society, being made an honorary life member in 1936. He joined the Holmesdale Natural History Club around 1899, and was their treasurer for over 30 years, Honorary Curator in 1910, and temporarily President in 1930. His wives were also members. On April 28th 1905, the Homlesdale NH Club have documented in their proceedings: “Mr. A. E. Tonge then exhibited a unique series of lantern slides, prepared from photomicrographs of “Eggs of Butterflies and Moths,” and also gave a paper on the method employed in taking the photographs, giving a short description of each slide.” (How I wish I could attend this talk now!)*

Alfred regularly contributed entries to the RPS’s annual exhibitions between 1909 and the 1930s, as well as receiving praise and awards for his work, particularly his photomicrographs. Holmesdale Natural History Club describe him as a pioneer in this field.* In 1920, the RPS Journal reported on the annual exhibition: “Among other photographs in this section to which attention should be called are the photomicrographs of the ova of British butterflies, the work of Mr. A. E. Tonge, and I am pleased to say that the Board of Judges considered this to be so good that they recommended the award of the Society’s medal to Mr. Tonge.” He did indeed go on to receive the award: “That exhibit, representing the eggs of some sixty different genera, must have entailed a considerable amount of labour. The judges were unanimous in thinking that such a work merited the award.”

I have found photographs of Alfred and his family, and I’m waiting to see if I can get permission from the family to share them.

Alfred’s dearly loved wife Ethel died aged 63 on 6th January 1929, at Fulwood, Preston, Lancs. Alfred later married Florence Marion Duncalfe, the daughter of a draper, in 1932, and lived until he was 68, passing away at Reigate on 7th August 1939. Before he passed, Alfred donated his very large and valuable collection of British butterflies and moths to the Booth Natural History Museum in Brighton, with the gift named ‘The A. E. Tonge Collection’. In an obituary, his illness was described as “long and tedious, heroically borne” (his family identify it as Parkinson’s disease), and he was mourned by a large circle of friends. His probate went to John Henry Tonge, his brother and a consulting engineer, William Reginald Stevens, his son-in-law, married to Amorel and a railway official, and solicitor Evelyn Hewitt.

* I must say a big thank you to the Holmesdale Natural History Club’s current President Andy for providing me with information about Alfred and their club. The club still exists today, and you can find their website here.

Alfred Ernest Tonge’s Stereoscopic Photographs

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The Nature Stereoscopic Club
Folio: B Date: Aug 1927
Member’s Name: A E Tonge
Subject: Eggs of Chocolate Tip Moth x 10 in Situ on Aspen Leaf.

– A well rendered slide. How many of these eggs of moths – seem to be quite smooth shells, without any markings, as designs.
– The eggs are beautifully done. R.C. (Ralph Chislett)
– Very fine.
– This is a real beauty in spite of prints beings gaslight.
– An excellent result but slightly marred by streaks of mounting. Is the leaf surface eroded beneath the eggs? If so by what? J.G.W.
– A fine egg slide in every way.
– To J.G.W.: There is no erosion of the leaf under the eggs. The darker slate is the cement used by the parent moth to fix the eggs firmly. A.E.T. (Alfred’s reply)
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-Very good.
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The Nature Stereoscopic Club
Folio: D. Date: Nov 1927.
Member’s Name: A E Tonge
Subject: Egg of Coxcomb Prominent Moth x 10. An unusually large batch found wild laid under a birch leaf. The eggs are pale bluish green in colour.

– All your slides of eggs of Lepidoptera are most interesting to me as I collect myself, but must see magnified. Very excellent work.
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The Nature Stereoscopic Club
Folio: B Date: Jan 1928
Member’s Name: A E Tonge
Subject: Batch of eggs of C thragritidis a moth found in reed beds which so far as I know has no English name. They are wild laid inside the leaf sheath of the reed x 10.

– Excellent

The geek in me really wishes they had also mentioned the cameras and techniques used. I just need a time machine and a natter with all of them, not least because I feel I know them personally now! I must express gratitude to the Royal Photographic Society for publishing their Journal archive online; it’s been such a fantastic resource in helping me to track these three great ambassadors of nature photography down.


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