Optics, Illusion and Paper Cut-Out Scenes: Paper Peep Shows at the Victoria and Albert Museum
The world's largest and most comprehensive collection of paper peepshows has been acquired for the nation and gifted to the V&A.
A paper peepshow resembles a pocket-sized stage set, complete with backdrop and paper cut-out scenes, which expand to create an illusion of depth. The world's largest collection, which includes over 360 paper peepshows along with other optical wonders, has been gifted to the Victoria & Albert Museum under the Cultural Gifts Scheme, a major initiative introduced by the Government in 2013 to encourage life-time giving to UK public collections. This is the first gift under the scheme to be allocated to the V&A.
The peepshow collection was formed over 30 years by Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner and is now part of the V&A's research collection, and will be available in the reading rooms of the National Art Library.
Peepshow depicting the interior of the Crystal Palace, 1851, Germany. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photograph: Dennis Crompton
Covering a wide range of subjects, the peepshows allow viewers the chance to join a vibrant masquerade, peek inside the Thames Tunnel or follow Alice down the rabbit hole. Others commemorate historic events, such as the coronation of Queen Victoria or Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow in 1812. They come in many shapes and sizes and are printed or handmade. Some are no larger than a matchbox, while others expand to over two metres in length. First engineered in the 1820s from paper and cloth, peepshows became an inexpensive pastime for adults and children. Most commonly sold as souvenirs, they offered a glimpse into a choice of vistas, celebrating particular events, famous places or engineering feats.
Peepshow depicting the River Thames and tunnel, about 1843, Britain. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photograph: Dennis Crompton
Nearly 200 years since their invention, paper peepshows continue to delight viewers with their ingenuity and visually arresting scenes.
Peepshow depicting the interior of the Crystal Palace, 1851, Germany, below © Victoria and Albert Museum, London. Photograph: Dennis Crompton
The collection will be available to search online on the National Art Library Catalogue and on Search the Collections. Anyone wishing to access the peepshows can view them by appointment at the National Art Library.
An illustrated catalogue of the collection was published in 2015 by the late Ralph Hyde: Paper Peepshows: the Jacqueline & Jonathan Gestetner Collection
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