When It Happens Panel Get involved: send your photos, videos, news & views by texting 'OXFORD NEWS' to 80360 or email
Discovering a lost world
It has taken the obsessive interest of musician Brian May to open our eyes to the work of a long forgotten Victorian superstar, who somehow turned a small Oxfordshire village into his masterpiece.
As a photographer, TR Williams was the first choice of the Royal family and high society. At the wedding of Princess Victoria to Prince Frederick William of Prussia, there was some consternation at court when the royal procession fell behind schedule because of Queen Victoria’s insistence that Williams took a few extra photographs.
But his popular fame came through the magic of his three-dimensional images, as his work inspired a 3D craze that gripped Victorian England. And nothing entranced the Victorians more than the series of photographs he took of life in the tiny Oxfordshire village of Hinton Waldrist, half-way between Oxford and Faringdon, where the photographer spent much of his boyhood.
The narrative series of photographs was called Scenes in Our Village and thousands of beautiful stereo cards were printed and sold.
The images provided an enchanting look at rural life and local characters such as the dame with her spinning wheel, John Sims at his pig-sty, Old Dancy enjoying his pipe, Little Mary and her magpie, and Mrs Giles at her pump.
Yet somehow the Victorian society photographer managed to keep secret the location of the village that came to fascinate a nation. It seems that he was determined that he did not want this isolated corner of Oxfordshire that he treasured to be spoiled through his own efforts to capture a timeless idyll.
“He had this vision of painting a lasting picture of the idyll he regarded as precious. People clamoured for his still-life studies in a way reminiscent of today’s pop music fans, eagerly awaiting the release from their favourite artist.”Brian May
Now Brian May’s fascination with Williams has resulted in a complete collection of the cards in the village series being brought together for the first time. Many of the images May (best known as guitarist with legendary rock band Queen) had collected were accompanied by a poem on the back, to offer a valuable document of a bygone age.
All 59 of the 3D images are featured in a book that May has put together with photographic historian Elena Vidal, entitled A Village Lost and Found.
In it he describes how a boyhood interest in 3-D photography led to him to TR Williams and his work.
When the guitarist realised the complete Scenes in Our Village Series had never been seen together in living memory, he set himself the task of trying to assemble a full set. He also made up his mind to spare no effort to find the village that his hero had lovingly photographed and returned to again and again.
Already he has begun work on a full-scale biography of the photographer, a modest, unassuming man, who was born in Blackfriars in the City of London in 1824.
Williams’s father owned a coaching business, which operated the London to Reading route. Precious little is yet known about the photographer’s childhood. But it is now clear that he spent at least some time in Hinton Waldrist, which clearly left a huge impression on him.
He became an apprentice to the renowned photographer and inventor Antoine Claudet in the early 1840s, shortly after the advent of photography. Claudet, like many others, was intrigued by studies showing how stereoscopic images could be made, simulating the vision we experience in the real world much better than a flat image ever could.
The turning point for both photography and stereo photography came in 1851 with the Great Exhibition, which realised Prince Albert’s dream of a marriage of arts and sciences. It presented advances in camera and lens making and a portable lenticular stereoscopic view. “This innovation triggered an explosion of public interest in the medium of stereo cards and slides,” says May.
“Shortly afterwards Williams opened his first photographic exhibition in Lambeth.”
The gentry were soon beating a path to his door for his stereoscopic portraits and royalty soon followed. Some of his portraits are in the Royal collection at Windsor Castle, including photographs of the confirmation of Princess Alice.
Although initially less lucrative, Williams also produced still lifes and artistic compositions. May views the Scenes in Our Village, produced in the 1850s, as a labour of love.
“He had this vision of painting a lasting picture of the idyll he regarded as precious. People clamoured for his still-life studies in a way reminiscent of today’s pop music fans, eagerly awaiting the release from their favourite artist.”
But Williams continued to shun the limelight.
“This extreme discretion prevailed throughout his life, as did his dedication to perfection in his work,” said May, who believes that Williams’s death at the age of 47 may well be linked to the chemicals he used for his work.
“When we began nobody knew where Our Village was. By publishing a picture of the village church on the internet, we were able, with the help of some kind correspondents, to discover what had been hidden for 150 years, the location of the beautiful village of TRW’s vision.”
For May standing where Williams had worked was “a Holy Grail moment.”
And like Williams before him he has come to love the village, which in many ways is remarkably unchanged. But don’t go telling too many people.
A Village Lost and Found, by Brian May and Elena Vidal is published by Frances Lincoln at £35. It comes with a special stereoscopic veiwer, designed by Brain May. Visit the website: