Robert Fulford, National Post · Monday, Oct. 25, 2010
In the years when Brian May was circling the globe as lead guitarist with the rock band Queen, making a fortune by playing for huge crowds in football stadiums, he was also pursuing another interest. He was an eager collector of art in a peculiar, almost unknown category -- stereoscopic photos made in the middle of the 19th century. For him it’s been a lifelong passion.
Brian May is not your everyday rock star. He’s a man of parts, an individualist whose interests veer off in unexpected and apparently unrelated directions. He’s one of those people who exuberantly demonstrate that no one needs to be predictable and several sensibilities can flourish within a single personality.
When his career in rock erupted in the 1970s he was a graduate student in astrophysics. A few years ago, after his life in music grew relatively quiet (though he still writes songs and produces records), he returned to his studies and in 2007 was awarded his PhD. Now he’s Dr. Brian May, CBE, the letters indicating that the Queen decorated him for his services to British music.
It gets more interesting. He’s a lifelong Conservative voter (a rock star?), but he’s dead against the fox hunt; he’s also a defender of the endangered English badger. He’s written film scores, composed an opera performed by puppets and devised the musical background for a production of Macbeth. He designed a Planetarium show that runs in Germany and Belgium.
He played his guitar arrangement of God Save the Queen from the roof of Buckingham Palace for the 2002 Golden Jubilee concert. He appears often on a BBC astronomy program, The Sky at Night. He’s chancellor of Liverpool John Moores University. He’s also a husband and father.
“I’ve never been an archetypal rock star,” he’s said. “I’ve reached out for life in all its colours.” At 63 his luxuriant curly hair is only slightly greyed. It still looks roughly as it did when he played alongside Freddie Mercury, the Parsi vocal star of Queen, who wrote Bohemian Rhapsody before he died of AIDS in 1991.
Even before Queen came together as a band, May was touring antique shops, street markets and auction houses that sell old photographs. Many of the stereoscopic pictures were grubby and faded but when seen through a 3-D viewer “these ancient images would burst into life and suddenly a whole world, created close to the dawn of photography itself, took shape before my eyes.” That’s the world May has spent three decades exploring.
He’s accomplished the archeological miracle of breathing new life into the reputation of T.R. Williams (1824-1871), a photographer who was famous during his lifetime but has since been forgotten. Along with Elena Vidal, an art scholar specializing in 3-D photos, May has edited an impressive art book, A Village Lost and Found (Frances Lincoln Publishers), reproducing 59 stereographs by Williams of village life in England in the 1850s, along with a brief biography of Williams and the poems he wrote to accompany his photos. (The $75.50 price includes a stereoscopic viewer designed by May.)
“To me, he was like a rock star of his day,” May says. “Stereo photography was huge.” Williams apprenticed with Antoine Claudet, a photographer and inventor who had studied with Louis Daguerre, one of the inventors of photography. Williams learned and developed Claudet’s technique of taking two nearly identical side-by-side images, so that they produced a feeling of depth when seen in a 3-D viewer.
Williams took 3-D portraits (including some of Queen Victoria’s family), made pictures of the Great Exhibition in The Crystal Palace in 1851 and produced a series of village scenes. He made still-life studies influenced by 17th-century Dutch painting. He died at 46 and the stereoscope boom faded. His reputation vanished beneath the waves of fashion and since then he’s rarely even been mentioned in print.
His village series, reproduced and sold to the public as cards, seems to have been an attempt to document pre-modern life before it disappeared. He depicted bridges, granaries, cottages and a church. He posed villagers gossiping, fishing, washing, operating a grindstone. Sometimes he put himself in the photos, always a figure in a top hat and tails, facing away from the camera.
But nowhere in this series did he mention the name of the village. Did it even exist? Perhaps, like movie directors a century later, Williams had cobbled together appealing bits that added up to his idea of what a village should be.
It was a mystery that May, after years of looking at these pictures, couldn’t solve. Finally he put on his website a photo of the village church shown in one of the stereo cards. He asked whether anyone could identify it.
Within 36 hours he had a dozen correct answers. Three of them, May discovered, came from Italians who had never set foot in the U.K., “proving the power of the Net for those who know how!”
The village was Hinton Waldrist, in Oxfordshire. The county line had been redrawn in the 1850s, making the place harder to find. May and Vidal were soon on their way there. They discovered the Anglican church was the Church of St. Margaret of Antioch, built originally in the 13th century. The village has been modernized here and there but remains recognizable.
Now that the mystery of the village has been solved, May has been asked to explain a more modern phenomenon from his career with Queen. In 1975, when his colleague Freddie Mercury created Bohemian Rhapsody, which is now regarded as one of the classic tunes in the history of rock, it was clearly a kind of grievance song; “I’m just a poor boy nobody loves me” is a typical line. But Mercury inserted into it a series of unrelated words and names: “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?” it says at one point and at another “Galileo Galileo” and “Figaro.”
So when May appeared on NPR recently the interviewer asked him whether he would explain what all that meant. “No,” May replied. He had no idea. When someone in Queen wrote a song, the other musicians just assumed he knew what he was doing and left it at that. Freddie never did explain what he meant, perhaps partly because no one asked him.
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