Published: July 29, 2016
LONDON — The world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of paper peepshows has been donated to the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) under the Cultural Gifts Scheme. The scheme was introduced by the government in 2013 as a major initiative to encourage life-time giving to UK public collections. This is the first gift under the scheme to be allocated to the V&A.
Paper peepshows resemble a pocket-sized stage set, complete with backdrop and paper cut-out scenes, which expand to create an illusion of depth. The gift of more than 360 paper peepshows, along with other optical wonders, spans nearly 300 years and 12 different countries. The collection was formed over 30 years by Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner and is now part of the V&A’s research collection, soon to be accessible in the reading rooms of the National Art Library.
Covering a wide range of subjects, the peepshows allow viewers the chance to join a vibrant masquerade, have a peek inside the Thames Tunnel or to follow Alice down the rabbit hole. Others commemorate historic events, such as the coronation of Queen Victoria or Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow in 1812. They come in many shapes and sizes and are printed or handmade. Some are no larger than a matchbox, while others expand to more than 6 feet in length. First engineered in the 1820s from paper and cloth, peepshows became an inexpensive pastime for adults and children. Most commonly sold as souvenirs, they offered a glimpse into a choice of vistas, celebrating particular events, famous places or engineering feats. Nearly 200 years since their invention, paper peepshows continue to delight viewers with their ingenuity and visually arresting scenes.
Highlights from the collection include:
• Oldest paper peepshow in the collection: Teleorama No. 1 by H. F. Müller, circa 1824-25. Made in Austria, this peepshow presents an idyllic garden leading to a large country house.
• Smallest: L’Onomastico, circa 1900. This Italian peepshow is the size of a small matchbox, but expands to nearly 8 inches, revealing a lively street party.
• Most popular subjects: The Thames Tunnel and the Crystal Palace are each represented in more than 60 examples within the collection, each slightly different from the other.
• Longest: A handmade peepshow picturing riflemen on maneuver, circa 1910, expands to more than 6 feet in length.
• Most unique: A view from L’Angostura de Paine in Chile was probably hand-made by the British writer Maria Graham circa 1835 when she traveled in Latin America.
• Oldest item in the collection: A British boîte d’optique, circa 1740, one of the precursors of the peepshow, consists of a mahogany box with a lens to view prints through.
The collection will soon be available to search online on the National Art Library Catalogue and on ‘V&A Search the Collections’. Anyone wishing to access the peepshows can view them by appointment at the V&A’s National Art Library, Cromwell Road. For information, +44 20 7942 2000 or www.vam.ac.uk.
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