V&A acquires largest peepshow collection

The Victoria & Albert Museum is the new proud owner of the country’s largest collection of peepshows, not the Madonna Open Your Heart video kind of peepshow, the paper kind that staged scenes from history, literature, landscapes, buildings, military parades, architectural and engineering wonders. They’re like pocket dioramas, with cutouts and multiple panels that convey complex scenes and hives of activity in some, sometimes in much, depth of field.

The collection of more than 360 peepshows was given to the nation by collectors Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner under the Cultural Gifts Scheme which allows UK taxpayers to donate artworks or other objects of important cultural patrimony. In return, donors get a tax deduction in the amount of a set percentage of the object’s value. An advisory panel then recommends which institution should receive the donated item.

The Gestetner collection covers the full history of the paper peepshow from the earliest examples in the 1820s to the present day. The oldest piece in the collection is called Teleorama No. 1 and was made in Austria by Heinrich Friedrich Müller around 1824-25. Müller was a pioneer in the printing of high quality picture books for children. He rejected the more rudimentary style of illustration prevalent in the children’s books of the time, and starting in 1811, turned to master artists, engravers, colorists and painters to create lesson books, educational workbooks, texts and readers with beautiful color illustrations.

His picture books were massively successful and other printers fell all over themselves to copy him. Meanwhile Müller kept it moving, expanding his business to other fine color-printed products including board games, embroidery panels and peepshows. The peepshows captured the consumer imagination swell, first in Austria and Germany, then outwards to northern Europe and Britain. Thousands of the detailed depictions of idyllic exteriors and luxurious interiors were bought by foreign buyers.

British printers got on the bandwagon and peepshows celebrating momentous national events or the latest marvel of the Victorian era soon became popular souvenirs. The Thames Tunnel and Crystal Palace were particularly popular subjects, if the Gestetner collection is any proof. There are more than 60 peepshows on those two wonders of the age.

Some of the related optical artifacts in the collection predate the peepshows. The oldest object beats Mr. Müller’s work by almost a century. It’s a boîte d’optique of British manufacture, made ca. 1740, a precursor to the peepshow. It’s a mahogany box with a lens. A print of something exotic would be placed in the box and viewers would pay to see the subject in full-screen.

The range of sizes is enormous. The longest peepshow wasn’t the work of a professional printer. It was handmade and handpainted in around 1910 and depicts riflemen on manoeuvre over nine panels that when stretched all the way is more than 6.5 feet long. The smallest is an Italian work from ca. 1900. L’Onomastico (“The Name Day”) is tiny, just the size of a small matchbox, but it holds large wonders. When stretched all the way out, it’s almost eight inches long and depicts the revelries of a name-day street party.

Dr Catherine Yvard, Special Collections Curator at the National Art Library, on the V&A’s new baby:

“This collection is a real treasure trove and makes a wonderful addition to our holdings, which focus particularly on the art of the book. Peeping into one of these tunnel-books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space. In an instant you can join Napoleon on the Island of St Helena or a rowdy masquerade on London’s Haymarket. Peepshows were 19th century virtual reality. They offer wonderful insights into social history. Considering that most of them would have been made quite cheaply, it is a miracle that so many have survived.”

For now the peepshows can only be viewed in person by appointment at the Victoria & Albert’s National Art Library. They will soon be digitized and available to search both in the National Art Library Catalogue and in the V&A collection database.

NB: All of the objects pictured in this post were accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from the collections of Jacqueline Gestetner and Jonathan Gestetner and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016.

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4 Comments »

Comment by Russell Potter
2016-08-02 10:03:00

This is excellent news! I have been to see the Gestetner collection while it was still in their hands, and it is a fabulous one; the V&A is a perfect home. But I do wish that this article and others about it would mention the work that my late friend Ralph Hyde did with this collection over many years, and direct people to his extraordinary book, “Paper Peepshows: The Jacqueline & Jonathan Gestetner Collection,” which was published last year by the Antique Collectors Club (ISBN 978-1851498000). In it, you can see many more of the items that are part of this donation, beautifully photographed and with Ralph’s keen historical commentary.

 
Comment by Awesome Aud
2016-08-02 14:37:16

Are the donors related to David Gestetner, inventor of the Gestetner stencil duplicator in the 1880s?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Gestetner

 
Comment by Russell Potter
2016-08-02 15:04:44

Yes, indeed — Johnathan Gestetner was the heir to the family business.In his home in London, where I visited the collection, there were a series of photographs of him, his father, and grandfather presenting every modern Pope with a Gestsetner machine! At fate would have it, my visit took place on the day after the election of Pope Benedict XVI, but I don’t know whether the tradition continued with him!

 
Comment by Audrey Burtrum-Stanley
2016-08-02 17:08:06

I just LOVE this blog!!!

Not only do you get to learn — and become inspired — by the stories presented, but the comments added by the readership enhances the experience. (Russell P. — you lucky pup! I’m going to look for your friend’s book too.)

Thanks so very much. This was a terrific bit of news. Now, I need a visit to the V&A Museum!

 
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