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Stonehenge Sunset

Stonehenge rocks: behind the iconic site’s first family photo

Stonehenge’s oldest family photo was discovered in Dr Brian May’s collection and is now on display in a new exhibition on site

By Rachel Mackay 

After a 3D stereo view of Stonehenge’s oldest family photo was discovered in Dr Brian May’s collection, a new display has been created using digital stereoscope technology and a soundtrack composed by the legendary Queen guitarist himself.

Most people are familiar with the two UK icons that this story focuses on. Stonehenge, cared for by conservation charity English Heritage, is one of the most defining images of British history. Meanwhile, Dr Brian May has rightfully earned a place in the pantheon of British rock legends as the world-famous guitarist of Queen.

However, the link between the two is slightly more niche. How many people have heard of The Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy, after all? In fact, stereoscopes are a long-held passion for May. The musician says he has had a fascination with stereo cards since receiving one in a cereal packet as a child.

The Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy

Stereographs were popularized in the mid-nineteenth century and consist of two images taken from slightly different perspectives. Viewed through a stereoscope, the images combine into a three-dimensional view. This allows depth perception, bringing Victorian images to life.

Stereoscope-at-Stonehenge
Digital Stereoscope at Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Image courtesy of English Heritage

Over the years, this technology has had a number of practical applications. During the Second World War, for example, the absence of accurate maps meant the RAF had to rely on aerial photographs of Germany. Stereoscopes allowed officers to perceive depth, allowing them to accurately gauge the height of buildings and landscapes.   

Today, the Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy cares for a unique collection of stereoscopic images, devices and other related materials on behalf of the nation. It aims to educate the public on all things stereoscopic.

It was in this collection that curators Denis Pellerin and Rebecca Sharpe found what is considered to be the oldest family photograph ever taken at Stonehenge. The stereo view is made up of two slightly different images mounted on a card. They are both of a family group enjoying a day out in the stones.

The man behind the camera

The photographer behind this image has been identified as Henry Brooks (1825 – 1909). The subjects of the stereo view are thought to be Henry’s family: his wife Caroline, and his children, Frank and Caroline Jane.

Henry Brooks had a local connection to Stonehenge, having been born in Wiltshire. By the 1850s various sources list him as being a carver, a gilder and a painter. He lived on the High Street in Salisbury.

first family photo stonehenge
Henry Brooks’ stereo photograph, displayed at Stonehenge Visitor Centre. Image courtesy of English Heritage

By the 1860s he was well-established as a photographer. According to his obituary, he was “the first in Salisbury to produce a photograph on paper, having ground and polished his own lenses and made his own camera.”

Pellerin and Sharpe wrote a blog post describing their find. Here, they say they believe Brooks took the stereo photograph at Stonehenge between 1863 and 1865. It shows the Brooks family near Stone 56 which seems to be at an extremely perilous angle. This stone was later straightened in 1956.

A time-consuming process

Pellerin and Sharpe also describe the labour intensive process capturing such an image would have been at the time:

“In order to obtain this picture, he had to bring a portable darkroom (specially equipped wheelbarrow, horse-drawn van or tent), coat the glass plate with a sticky layer of collodion, sensitise it with silver nitrate, in the dark, put the still-wet plate in the holder, place the holder in the camera, take the first half of the stereoscopic pair, move the camera a couple of inches to the right, expose the other half of the plate, go back to his darkroom, and finally develop, fix, wash, dry and varnish the resulting negative at once so that paper prints could be made from it later on.”

Stonehenge_
Stonehenge. Image courtesy of English Heritage

This process perhaps explains the family’s poses as see them in the stereoscopic image; leaning on elbows and hands. This would have helped them keep still for the amount of time the plate would need to be exposed.

Brooks’ proximity to Stonehenge, his technical and artistic achievements in the field of photography and his interest in the site (he later copyrighted a photograph of a model of Stonehenge) make the probable honour of taking the first family picture at Stonehenge a well-deserved one.

Your Stonehenge

Brooks’ image has arrived on display at Stonehenge more than a year after the opening of Your Stonehenge, an exhibition of Stonehenge memories created from publicly submitted photographs.

However, the Your Stonehenge project really began in 2018. To celebrate 100 years since Cecil and Mary Chubb gave Stonehenge to the nation, English Heritage made a call for visitors to upload photographs showing visits to Stonehenge. More than 1400 images arrived in response, some dating as far back as the 1870s.

Your stonehenge exhibition
Your Stonehenge. Image courtesy of English Heritage

The response was so overwhelming that English Heritage decided to create an on-site exhibition. Out of the 1400 images, it chose 144 that best represented Stonehenge’s recent history. The result is a collection that shows how the fascination with Stonehenge has endured. Even as our fashions, habits and lives have altered over the last 150 years.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say that Stonehenge is the subject of every photograph. Instead, it represents (as attractions still do today) the background for memories rather than the focus of them.

As a record of holidays with family and friends, many of the photographs instead highlight human relationships. The stories that form the exhibition touch on both love and loss. One photograph comes from a honeymoon. Another is one of the last photographs of a big brother who later died.

A contstant presence

Stonehenge 1974
Photograph from Your Stonehenge, 1974. Image courtesy of English Heritage

Behind all of this is Stonehenge; an immovable backdrop to the ebb and flow of human life. The decision to stage the exhibition chronologically rather than thematically underlines the passive role it plays. The timeline seems to highlight Stonehenge’s constant presence throughout the years. It remains a permanent but silent centrepiece to the activity around it.

And yet, many photographs illuminate our changing relationship with the monument itself. The image here comes from 1974 and shows the summer solstice. Many photographs in the exhibition show people inside the circle. However, these days for conservation reasons visitors cannot enter this fragile area during normal opening hours.

There are still opportunities to book special stone circle visits before and after the site opens to the public. But the summer and winter solstices at Stonehenge remain rare opportunities for visitors to experience the stones in the same way crowds did back in 1974.

Evolving visitor interactions at Stonehenge

However, 2020 saw yet another evolution in how visitors engage with the stones. The pandemic led to the rare public closure of the site and forced the cancellation of in-person solstice events. English Heritage turned to live streaming instead. Thousands of people around the world watched the midsummer sun rise over the stones. In fact, this online event was such a success that the Stonehenge team plan to repeat it for future solstices.

English Heritage Exhibition
Your Stonehenge. Image courtesy of English Heritage

As our interaction and engagement with Stonehenge continue to change, Your Stonehenge becomes an important archive. It charts over 150 years of this evolving relationship.

Susan Greaney, English Heritage Historian, agrees, saying “The stones play such an important role in our collective memory and this can be seen so clearly in the long tradition of family and group photos taken at the stones and on display in the Your Stonehenge exhibition.”

Who wants to live forever?

Submission number 145 to Your Stonehenge, despite the lateness of the entry, is surely the crowning glory of the exhibition. Not only is it probably one of the earliest examples of Stonehenge family photography, but the connection of the image with rock legend Dr Brian May has opened up new opportunities when it comes to display and visitor engagement.

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

As part of the exhibition, guests can view the stereoscopic image through a digital stereoscope. This is on loan from The Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy. Visitors can enjoy a short film of historic and contemporary Stonehenge stereo views. The film is accompanied by a piano soundtrack of May playing the classic Queen song Who Wants to Live Forever?

May says of the image:

“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.”

Visitor response

However, creating an immersive display such as this was not without its challenges, especially in the age of COVID.

James Rodliff is Operations Manager at Stonehenge. He explains that the idea of installing an additional interactive seemed far from possible just a few months ago when some items were still not in use, for visitor safety. “The exhibition is a busy space, with a much higher comparative footfall to recent years due to the rise in domestic visitors at Stonehenge with more time and a desire to fully explore the visitor experience.”

oldest family photo
Oldest Stonehenge Family Photo Display. Image courtesy of English Heritage

Therefore, the Stonehenge team worked closely with The Brian May Archive of Stereoscopy on some solutions. The aim was to design an experience that remained high quality whilst keeping visitors as safe as possible.

Visitors to the exhibit view a stereoscope image whilst listening to a soundtrack recorded by May. The original plan was to use headphones to maximise the quality of this audio experience. However, COVID restrictions made this idea undesirable. Therefore, the English Heritage team instead decided to install small but effective speakers around the cabinet. This way, visitors could hear the music with fewer touchpoints needed on the cabinet.

COVID precautions

In addition to this, English Heritage still strongly encourage visitors to wear face masks if they are able to. They have provided cleaning wipes for visitors to clean the viewer between each use. Staff monitor the exhibition and also regularly clean key areas such as the cabinet.

The surprising link between such a rock icon and the stone monument always brings a smile to the face of guests

“Visitor feedback has been really positive” explains Rodliff.  “The surprising link between such a rock icon and the stone monument always brings a smile to the face of guests. The moving soundtrack accompanying the stunning historic and modern images on the films lets people experience the site in a whole new way”.

A plea for descendants

One of the great things about the Your Stonehenge exhibition is that it encourages human connections. Stonehenge’s prehistory could feel unrelatable. After all, the Neolithic people who built and used the monument are far away from our own time. So much so that they seem out of reach.

Seeing photos and reading stories – some funny, some joyful, some sad – from the 19th and 20th centuries allows us to relate to the more recent Stonehenge history through the connections we make to its visitors. We imagine ourselves in their places and they remind us of long-forgotten holiday memories from our childhoods.

Stonehenge

Both English Heritage and Dr May are keen to reinterpret the picture for the modern era. May says “it would be great fun to recreate the image as a stereo view at Stonehenge and breathe new life into an old photo.”

With this in mind, English Heritage put out a call for descendants of Henry Brooks.

“Some of his paintings are in the collections of Salisbury Museum, along with one by his son Frank, who in the photo sits with his back to the camera,” says Greaney. “We’d love to track down Henry and Frank’s descendants and bring that photo to life again.”

The resulting image, if it is possible to recreate, will draw a clear line between Stonehenge past and present, connecting us to human history through this ever-present iconic monument.

Your Stonehenge: 150 Years of Personal Photos runs at Stonehenge Visitor Centre until 31 August 2022.

Top image: Stonehenge, courtesy of English Heritage

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Rachel Mackay

Rachel Mackay manages Historic Royal Palaces at Kew, looking after four historic sites including Kew Palace. In 2020, she created The Recovery Room (therecoveryroomblog.com) to share research and resources as the museum sector recovers from the impact of the pandemic. She was recently named one of Blooloop’s top 50 museum influencers.

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