An image that is around 160 years old has united two undisputed icons of rock, following the discovery of the oldest-known family photograph taken at Stonehenge in a collection belonging to Queen guitarist Dr Brian May.
The image in question is a Victorian stereo view, in which two almost-identical photographs, taken from slightly different perspectives, are mounted on a card – when looking at them through a special viewer called a stereoscope, the brain is tricked into seeing a realistic 3D image. This particular example was taken by Henry Brooks, a local photographer and artist based in Salisbury, and shows his wife Caroline and daughter Caroline Jane posing patiently for the long exposure in front of the dramatic slope of Stone 56 (this rather precarious sarsen was straightened in 1901). His young son, Frank, is also pictured but – perhaps being less tolerant of the wait, or possibly in a quirk of Brooks’ artistic arrangement of his subjects – sits with his back to the camera, while a man in a top hat and a woman appear as faint figures in the background moving between exposures. The photograph is thought to date to c.1865, based on the likely ages of the children and after consulting census records from the time.
‘Stereo views are amazingly effective, with a proper depth of field – they really give you a sense of being physically present at the site,’ said English Heritage prehistorian Susan Greaney. ‘They were hugely popular in the 1850s-1870s as a way to show people historic sites that you couldn’t easily travel to. People had collections in their drawing rooms that they would get out and do the “Grand Tour”.’
Queen and the Stone Age
The image came to light thanks to an appeal by English Heritage, in whose care Stonehenge rests. Last year, the Stonehenge Visitor Centre launched a new exhibition showcasing photographs of people visiting the monument over the course of almost 150 years. These had been selected from over 1,000 sent in by members of the public as part of an initiative in 2018 marking the centenary of Cecil Chubb bequeathing Stonehenge to the nation (see CA 360). Among the images in the original ‘Your Stonehenge’ displays was a dignified composition dating to c.1875, showing Isabel, Maud, and Robert Routh proudly poised with their horse and carriage in front of the Neolithic stones. At the time, this was the oldest-known family photograph from the site, but the exhibition team felt sure that earlier images must exist. They put out a new call urging people to search their family albums, attics, and archives – and one of the responses to this appeal came from the curators of the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy.
As well as being a renowned musician and astrophysicist, Brian May is an avid collector of stereo views, having amassed an assemblage of over 100,000 cards and employing two dedicated archivists, Denis Pellerin and Rebecca Sharpe, to care for them. It was Denis and Rebecca who identified the image and contacted English Heritage.
The Brooks image has now been incorporated into the extended ‘Your Stonehenge’ exhibition, where it can be viewed through a digital stereoscope loaned from Brian May’s collection. It forms part of a c.3-minute film in which Victorian and more recent stereo views of the monument have been set to a piano version of the Queen song ‘Who Wants to Live Forever’ that Brian has recorded specially for the display.
Brian, who last visited Stonehenge on a school trip but has now returned to the site to take new stereo views of the stones, said: ‘I’ve been fascinated by stereo cards since I was a boy and got one in a cereal packet. This is a fantastic early example and exciting because it’s one of the oldest family snaps taken at Stonehenge. It feels even more evocative when set to music – a bit like a silent movie – and we thought it would be great fun to recreate the image as a stereo view at Stonehenge and breathe new life into an old photo.’
The stereoscope featuring the film will be on display until the end of September 2021, while the wider ‘Your Stonehenge’ exhibition has been extended until 31 August 2022. For more information on the exhibition ‘Your Stonehenge: 150 years of personal photos’, and on visiting Stonehenge, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/things-to-do/exhibitions/yourstonehenge.