Stereophotography: The Victorians in 3D

A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.
A cabinet card depicting a Victorian couple with their stereoscope.

One of the joys (and sorrows) of research is all the interesting information you find on one topic while doing research on something completely different. While researching spirit photography, for instance, I came across this fascinating account of the Victorian stereoscope in the art book for National Museums Scotland’s exhibition ‘Photography: A Victorian Sensation’.*

If you think the 3D film craze is a new thing, think again. The stereoscope is one of its many historical predecessors. Essentially a pair of fancy spectacles, the device allowed you to view two nearly identical images side-by-side in a way that would make them appear three-dimensional. Alison Morrison-Low describes how enthusiastically the Victorians took to the technology:

Hundreds of thousands of stereoscopic images were sold […] in a major craze which reached every middle-class Victorian drawing-room. The demand appeared insatiable. In 1854, George Swan Nottage (1823-85) set up the London Stereoscopic Company. ‘No home without a stereoscope’ was its slogan. It sold a wide range of stereoscopes, costing from 2s 6d to £20 (about £10 and £1550 today), and became the largest photographic publishing company in the world. [p. 63]

A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives
A Victorian stereoscope from the collection of the NCC Photographic Archives

The vast numbers of stereo photographs can be divided into four main categories: travel, news, social scenes and comedy. By far the largest group was that of travel. […] The beauty of the English, Welsh or Irish countryside was frequently illustrated, as well as that of Scotland. Rural poverty and derelict cottages were seldom shown, as a Romantic portrayal of scenery prevailed. [p. 67]

 Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 - 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Stereocard depicting market women in Welsh costume, by Francis Bedford, 1863 – 1884. IL.2003.44.6.6.296 © Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

And speaking of the Romantics…

Charles Breese (1819-75) of Birmingham and Sydenham sold his highly thought-of quality slides at 5 shillings (£20 today) each. Entitled ‘Breaking Waves’, 1870s-80s, it comes with a quote from Lord Byron: ‘Sea with rocks and a half moon / the deep blue moon of night, Lit by an orb / Which looks like a spirit or a spirit’s world’. [p. 76]

Photograph of 'Breaking Waves' by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland
Photograph of ‘Breaking Waves’ by Charles Breese & Co., from Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland

*All page citations refer to Alison Morrison-Low, Photography: A Victorian Sensation (Edinburgh: National Museums Scotland, 2015).

Fantasies of Cardiff Bay Opera House

Culturalfantasies_smallThis week a lot of work has gone into the Fantasies of Contemporary Culture symposium that I’m organising with Tom Harman. The event will take place at Cardiff University on 23 May, and the programme and registration will hopefully go live sometime next week.

Today, the finishing touches have been put to the event poster (pictured left), which features a rather abstract black-and-white image. This image is of an architectural model – more specifically, a model for Cardiff Bay Opera House. It can’t be found on most websites about the Opera House, however. You also won’t find this building anywhere in Cardiff today.

What is the story behind this image, and why have we chosen to use an architectural model on the poster for a fantasy symposium? The obvious answer is that, as both a Welsh monument and a structure that today exists purely in the imagination, the Opera House applies directly to our location and theme. But beyond that there’s a slightly more convoluted story that bears telling.

The Cardiff Bay Opera House than never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.
The Cardiff Bay Opera House that never was, © Greg Lynn FORM.

Back in the early ’90s, as part of the UK’s massive Millennium Commission, it was decided that Cardiff needed a landmark building to put it on the map. An opera house would be built as part of the ongoing renovations to Cardiff Bay, and various architects would compete to design this iconic structure. Alun Michael, a former Cardiff city councillor, even made a link between the ambition of the Cardiff project and the famous Sydney Opera House:

Sydney, as a city, was an empty space in people’s minds until the Opera House was built. We need a similar sort of building in Cardiff for us to make our mark.

The project was announced and the proposals rolled in. Our poster image comes from a proposal by Greg Lynn’s architectural firm FORM, which, in the lofty language of this paper in Assemblage (April 1995), highlights ‘biological processes of growth and change to trope traditional architectural design assumptions[, and takes] the computer as a generative instrument for systems of symmetrical and asymmetrical organization using theories of biological variation’. In simpler terms, the Opera House they imagined taps into the popular trend of ‘sustainable architecture’, maximising the building’s integration into its location and minimising environmental impact. It strives to build something as aesthetically close to a living organism as possible.

Image © Greg Lynn FORM
Image © Greg Lynn FORM.

This is not the proposal that ultimately triumphed, however. The project went to Zaha Hadid’s lovely ‘inverted necklace’, planned to at once adorn the crescent of Cardiff Bay and become its crown jewel.

Painting © Zaha Hadid Architechts
Painting © Zaha Hadid Architects.

It was not to be, however, and Hadid’s plans were announced to substantial media controversy. When the funding bid for Cardiff Bay Opera House was officially rejected, three days before Christmas in 1995, Hadid cited prejudice against her gender and race as a primary cause. Author Nicholas Edwards (a.k.a. Nicholas Crickhowell) writes:

If she had been male, white and Welsh would it have been different? I do not know. I hope not. There are those who tell me I am naive. I really don’t know … I suspect that if it had been a young Welsh-speaking architect who had suddenly produced the design, the Western Mail might have taken a different line.

Others cited lack of public support for the design, and the push for sports over the arts with the construction of Millennium Stadium. Perhaps the most common word thrown around about the Cardiff Bay Opera House was ‘elitist’, a label that was perhaps understandable given the cultural connotations of opera today, but largely under-informed when applied to this project.

The Times Higher Education has a thorough article that attempts to unpack the various causes. Those interested in reading more about the failed bid can also pick up Nicholas Crickhowell’s Opera House Lottery: Zaha Hadid and the Cardiff Bay Project from Amazon for a mere £10. You can also view many of the original materials relating to the project at the National Library of Wales’ Cardiff Bay Opera House Trust Archive.

Whatever the reason for the project’s failure, it is now (again in the words of Alun Michael) ‘the most famous unbuilt building in Wales.’ Indeed, in 2011 it became the most famous rebuilt building in China, as Zaha Hadid’s rejected design was eventually applied to the Guangzhou Opera House. The Wales Millennium Centre (in Welsh: Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru) now stands where the Cardiff Bay Opera House would have.

Zaha Hadid’s design lives on in the Guangzhou Opera House.

Before it was even built – or to put it in the terms of our symposium, while it was still a fantasy – the Cardiff Bay Opera House brought a whole slew of the social and political issues in Wales to light. For us, then, this image serves as a striking visual reminder of the way even our unrealised ideas have power, and remain with us. For whom do we build culture, and what impact can seemingly innocuous and apolitical projects have on our society?

The problems and discussions surrounding the Cardiff Bay Opera House are echoed in various ways through much of contemporary fantasy. What kinds of fantasies are currently at play in our culture? Join us on 23 May at Cardiff University and find out!

The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: 'In these stones / horizons / sing', © Gwyneth Lewis.The inscription (in English) on Wales Millennium Centre reads: ‘In these stones / horizons / sing’. © Gwyneth Lewis.

Poster image © Greg Lynn FORM, in Greg Lynn, Jesse Reiser, and Nanako Umemoto, ‘Computer Animisms (Two Designs for the Cardiff Bay Opera House)’, Assemblage, 26 (1995), 8–37 (p. 12).