A Village Preserved, Green and All: Brian May’s Photographic Recovery
By RANDY KENNEDY
The name T. R. Williams does not ring many bells in photohistorical circles today. But in Victorian London he was a kind of rock star, whose instruments were marvels of scientific novelty the stereoscopic camera and viewer, developed in the 1850s, were the earliest forerunners of the View-Master and the current 3-D movie craze.
His fame as a stereo portraitist reached such heights that the Queen herself requested his services, to photograph her daughter, Princess Victoria, on her 16th birthday and on the occasion of her wedding. But by the early 20th century, after movies brought an end to the form’s wild popularity, the work of stereo photographers like Williams often wound up in the dusty remainder bins of photo shops and auction houses.
Which is where an actual rock star affiliated with a different sort of Queen Brian May, the woolly-haired lead guitarist for the beloved glam-band was perpetually on the prowl for them for years, between gigs, in many of the cities where the band was packing stadiums.
Depending on where we were, I always knew the dealers and collectors to go see,” recalled Mr. May, who has been obsessed with stereo pictures for most of his life. And it was nice because I was interacting in a world that was completely divorced from the rock world. None of these guys thought of me as anything other than an enthusiast, unless one of their kids would see me and say, Do you know who that is? He’s in Queen!’ ”
Now, after more than four decades of collecting, Mr. May’s passion has resulted in an ambitious door-stopper of a historical study examining Williams’s life and work, A Village Lost and Found” (Frances Lincoln). To promote the book, which Mr. May wrote with a photography historian and conservator, Elena Vidal, he has embarked on a tour considerably more sedate than the ones he used to know. Last week, one of its stops was Huron, Ohio (pop. 7,348), where he and Ms. Vidal were guest speakers at the 36th annual convention of the National Stereoscopic Association, a group of ardent hobbyists and collectors.
On Thursday the tour came to New York City, where Mr. May spoke before a modest but appreciative crowd at the Barnes & Noble branch in TriBeCa. (Only one Queen T-shirt was in evidence but an exuberant fan did bring his red electric guitar to try to get Mr. May to sign it.) On Friday Mr. May was to play undoubtedly the tour’s most august venue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, discussing A Village Lost and Found” with Ms. Vidal as part of the museum’s lecture series.
In an interview at the Waldorf Astoria, where he was staying, Mr. May said that the book had been a dream of his almost since he came across his first Williams stereo-photo card a pastel-colored rural reverie as a college student in London and wondered What in the world can this be?” While Williams had a thriving business producing portraits and views of notable events of the day, he seemed to have spent years working on a project much more personal in nature, a series called Scenes in Our Village,” that chronicled daily life in a tiny countryside town.
The pictures in that series with titles like Old Dancy Enjoying His Pipe,” Little Polly Gone Fast Asleep” and Loading the Dung Cart,” and with sentimental poems, probably written by Williams himself, printed on the backs of the cards were an attempt to capture a vision of English rural life that was already disappearing in the 1850s, as the Industrial Revolution gathered speed. The nostalgia for this kind of an idyllic past runs deep in English culture, and was memorably celebrated (and poked fun at) by another British rock band, the Kinks, in their song The Village Green Preservation Society.” (We are the Office Block Persecution Affinity/God save little shops, china cups and virginity.”)
Williams’s photo cards, many of them hand-colored, present such an idealized view of that vanishing world that Mr. May and others familiar with the photographer’s work were never sure whether the village they showed had actually existed, or was perhaps cobbled together from scenes in various places.
But one benefit of being famous is that you can get people’s attention. And so in 2003, when Mr. May posted a picture on brianmay.com of the village church shown in the stereo cards and an appeal for help in tracking down its location, he was inundated with information, and within 36 hours found the village, which was no Brigadoon. Called Hinton Waldrist, it still exists in Oxfordshire, west of London.
Mr. May and Ms. Vidal have since spent a considerable amount of time there as Williams is now known to have done as a child and have tracked down many of the old buildings and views captured in his pictures. Asked whether he was drawn to it by countryside childhood memories of his own, Mr. May, who grew up in the London suburb of Feltham which he called not a pretty place” said, smiling: Not memories from this life, I don’t think. Maybe from a previous one.”
The writing life has been just one element of a highly unusual post-superstar career that Mr. May, 63, has pursued since the death of the band’s lead singer, Freddie Mercury, in 1991, and the band’s semiretirement of the last few years. He went back to school and took up the studies in astrophysics he had left when his music career took off in the 1970s. He earned his doctorate in 2008 and published his thesis, the title of which would not look out of place on a Pink Floyd album cover: A Survey of Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud” (Copies of the thesis are available on Amazon.com for $63.96.) He has also been a frequent guest on the popular BBC astronomy program The Sky at Night,” and serves in a ceremonial capacity as chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University.
His head is still surrounded by the cloud of poodle curls he sported during his Queen years, but they have now gone a little gray, and he carries himself with more of an English gentleman’s gravitas than a rocker’s swagger. Two more vintage photography books are now in the works, he said, a full-length biography of Williams and an examination of wildly inventive French stereoscopic work from around the same period.
While he is still involved in making music and has hinted that he and Queen’s drummer, Roger Taylor, might reunite to play together again, he seems perfectly contented these days taking the stage behind a lectern, with a pair of reading glasses perched on his nose. Surveying the quietly admiring bookstore crowd in TriBeCa on Thursday night, he cleared his throat and deadpanned: This isn’t exactly Madison Square Garden, but I think it will do.”New York Times
"The work is the result of over 30 years of research, including the detective story aspect of discovering in 2003 the actual village that Williams photographed. Details about rural Victorian society, photographic equipment of the 1850s and the life of the enigmatic Williams himself promise to make this a major contribution to studies of the early history of stereography." Stereo World
Brian May, CBE, PhD, FRAS is a founding member of Queen, a world-renowned guitarist, songwriter, producer and performer. Brian had to postpone a career in astronomy when Queen's popularity first exploded, but, after an incendiary 30 years as a rock musician, was able to return to astrophysics in 2006, when he completed his PhD, and co-authored his first book, Bang! The Complete History of the Universe, with Patrick Moore and Chris Lintott. Stereography has been a life-long passion for Brian. ELENA VIDAL has worked as a conservator of paintings in Florence, Spain and the UK. She graduated as an MA in Photographic Conservation at the Camberwell School of Arts, and has subsequently specialised in the history of stereoscopic photography. Since meeting Brian May in 1997, Elena has collaborated with him on a long-term study of Thomas Richard Williams, and has published a number of articles.