The world’s largest collection of paper peepshows, depicting events that include Napoleon’s 1812 invasion of Moscow and Queen Victoria’s coronation, has been gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Private collectors Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner donated their collection of more than 360 peepshows to the country under the cultural gifts scheme.
Catherine Yvard, special collections curator at the National Art Library, part of the V&A, said it was thrilled to be the new custodian. “This collection is a real treasure trove,” she said. “Peeping into one of these tunnel books is like stepping into another world, travelling through time and space.”
When some people think of peepshows, they might think of something slightly sleazy, said Yvard. But that is a world away from the items in the Gestetner collection, which are mostly pocket-sized stage sets depicting landscapes, military parades and historical events.
Paper peepshows originated in Germany and Austria in the 1820s but quickly gained popularity in the UK. They would most commonly be sold as souvenirs celebrating landmark events or engineering feats, such as the construction of the Thames tunnel by father and son duo Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1825-43.
The cultural gifts scheme was introduced in 2013 to allow people to donate outstanding items or works of art to public collections in return for a tax reduction. The scheme is administered by Arts Council England, which decides which organisation to give the gift to.
Yvard said the V&A’s peepshow collection would be digitised and made accessible in the reading rooms of the National Art Library.
The Gestetners said: “We are thrilled that through the cultural gifts scheme our collection, charting the origin of the paper peepshow from the 1820s to the present day, which has given us immense pleasure over the years, will now join the V&A’s collections where it can be enjoyed by many others and used for study purposes.”
The oldest paper peepshow in the collection was made in Austria by HF Müller circa 1824-25, depicting an idyllic garden leading to a large country house. The longest is a handmade peepshow from about 1910, spanning more than 2 metres and featuring riflemen on manoeuvre.
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