About Victorian Virtual Reality

For the first time at Watts Gallery, discover an exhibition of Photographs from the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy, dedicated to a 19th century craze that saw the birth of 3D images.

Victorian Virtual Reality presents highlights from the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy to explore the nineteenth-century photography craze that, for the first time, enabled pictures to appear in 3D. Come and experience how this lesser-known Victorian innovation continues to captivate today.

Get close-up to over 150 historic stereoscopic photographs, which can be viewed in 3D through a range of modern viewers and digital techniques.

Discover the 19th-century art of stereoscopy, which saw a second wave of popularity in the mid-20th century. It was at that time that the young Sir Brian May – later the lead guitarist for Queen – began his passion for this photographic phenomenon and formed his world-leading collection of stereoscopy.

The show includes Sir Brian’s first ever stereocard – of two hippos – found in a Weetabix packet, as well as highlights from his extensive collection of Victorian stereoscopic photographs and early viewing devices.

Through stereoscopic photographs and interactive elements, explore celebrity portraits, snapshots of Victorian street scenes, and ghostly apparitions found in Sir Brian May’s collection. One photograph shows Victorians at home, sharing and viewing their own collections of images.

Victorian Virtual Reality is the first exhibition at Watts Gallery dedicated to stereoscopy and the largest display of original items from the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy. Stereoscopic photographs and other artwork from Watts Gallery Trust’s own Rob Dickins collection will feature among the loaned works.

Musician and astrophysicist Brian May poses with a stereoscope lens

Exhibition included in admission (includes entry to Historic Galleries and Limnerslease).


Florence Small's Studio in London, taken by an unknown photographer in the 1890s. Albumen paper print on cardboard mount

Rob Dickins Collection – Watts Gallery Trust

La guerre-départ de l’Enfer (War, departure from Hell), No. 61, Louis Alfred Habert (1824–1893), modeller, Adolphe Block (1829–1903), publisher, 1870s, Albumen back-tinted print on paper with tissue on cardboard mount.

Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy
Stereograph of the Egyptian pyramids

EGYPT–1859, Gaudin brothers publishers. Photographer unknown. Stereocard.1182. Le Sphinx et pyramide, près du Caire (No 1). One of 224 stereoviews of Egypt, Cairo and Nubia, published by the Gaudin and advertised in their photographic journal La Lumière in November 1859.

Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy
Stereograph on a Victorian sempstress

Sempstress Still Life, Alfred Silvester. Hand-tinted stereo card. c.1858. Second image from a series of four tells the story of a Sempstress.

Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy
Stereograph of Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens about to read one of his stories, Herbert Watkins (1828–1916), 1858, Albumen paper print on cardboard mount.

Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy

Waterloo veterans taken by Samuel Poulton (1819–1898) in the late 1850s. Albumen paper print on cardboard mount

Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy

How does stereoscopy work?

“I’m very grateful to the Watts Gallery for hosting this exhibition entirely devoted to Stereoscopy. This will be the first opportunity for me and my curators to share with the public many original and digitally reproduced 3-D images from BMAS - the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy.  The archive now gives a home to the collection of stereo images I have been assembling for over sixty years.”

- Sir Brian May

What is a stereoscopic photograph?

Stereoscopic photographs comprise two images of the same scene taken from slightly different viewpoints. When these are mounted side by side and viewed through a stereoscope, the viewer sees just one three-dimensional image.

The experience of seeing these pictures fuse into one, and having the chance to visually transport oneself into another place, would have been a truly thrilling experience for Victorian viewers. Printed stereoscopic photographs, known as stereocards, eventually became affordable and in the late 1850s and 1860s they circulated world-wide in their tens of thousands. 

Above is two identical images of two hippos standing in a river with their mouths agape, underneath there is a description card explaining how to use a stereoscope and some facts about hippos

Exhibition-related events and articles

  1. Photograph of the exhibition Victorian Virtual Reality with bright yellow walls and stereo images blown up on the wall

    Introducing Art in the Victorian Parlour

  2. Young woman looks into a modern stereoscope to see images in 3D

    Victorian parlour evening

  3. Article

    The life of Florence Small

    16 August 2023