Victoria & Albert museum has announced the acquisition of over 360 paper peepshows, donated to the museum under the UK Government’s Cultural Gifts Scheme, forming the world’s largest collection of the vibrant and miniature art form.
Paper peepshows are small-scale models, popular throughout the 19th Century, recreating notable scenes from history or literature that transport the viewer through an immersive illusion of depth. Created from hand painted and printed paper and cloth, peepshows became an inexpensive pastime for children and adults alike, since they first emerged in the 1820s.
The pieces range from the size of a matchbook, to several metres in length. L’Ononmastico, an Italian peepshow circa 1900, expands from such a miniature scale to some 20cm in length, revealing a lively street scene as it unfolds.
Others examples detail notable sights and social events of the time, including the resplendent Crystal Palace, the Haymarket and then newly the created Thames Tunnel (today part of TfL’s network connecting Rotherhithe and Wapping London Overground stations), or recreations of foreign countries created as a result of travel and expedition.
“Peeping into one of these tunnel-books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space. In an instant you can join Napoleon on the Island of St Helena or a rowdy masquerade on London’s Haymarket. Peepshows were 19th century virtual reality. They offer wonderful insights into social history,” says Dr Catherine Yvard, curator of special collections at the V&A’s National Art Library.
The oldest artefact in the collection, a British example of a boîte d’optique from 1740, offers insight into the precursors to peepshows, a box made from a mahogany with a lens through which to view prints.
Now part of the V&A, this collection covering 300 years of tradition across 12 different countries, will soon be made accessible in the reading rooms of the National Art Library.
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