Long before Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the paper peep show—a small, layered diorama that expands like an accordion to create the illusion of depth—was a way for audiences in the 19th century to peer into times and places beyond their own experience. A popular souvenir in their day, peep shows brought to life scenes of the completion of the Thames Tunnel and the Great Exhibition of 1851 to masquerade balls and theatrical stage sets. Now, they're delightful pieces of ephemera from another time that suggest that desire for immersion in other worlds stretches back centuries.
After a recent donation from Jacqueline and Jonathan Gestetner, the world's largest collection of paper peep shows now resides at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. For Catherine Yvard, the special collections curator at the V&A's National Art Library, it's an exciting addition because the peep shows are an unusual way of documenting their time and place.
"They look quite unassuming when they’re collapsed. You don’t realize the depth that they have, and you don’t quite know what to expect initially," she said. "They have a title, but it’s only when you peep into the hole that the landscape unfolds."
Paper peep shows were invented in the early 19th century in Germany and Austria, and they run the gamut in size and style. Some are as small as a matchbox while others stretch to two meters long; some are handmade and others were mass-produced and then hand-painted. Peep shows typically depict historical events, contemporary entertainment, and engineering feats, as well as foreign or imaginary locales.
"There are some that are quite exotic," Yvard said. "They’ll bring you to Constantinople or they'll bring you back in time, to the site of a battle. It’s a way of transporting you to these places."
One of Yvard's favorites is a peep show of a play called The Elephant of Siam, which played at the Adelphi Theater in London in 1829 and featured the first live elephant on the English stage. In the peep show, which Yvard said was likely sold as a souvenir at the Adelphi, a paper cutout of an elephant helps the Prince of Siam escape from prison, while elegantly dressed British aristocrats observe the spectacle.
"They really document a lot of the entertainment that was popular at the time," Yvard said. "And they look like little mini stage sets. It’s the same idea, the cutout panels that come in that create various levels that recede in the distance."
Peep shows, also known as tunnel books, are widely considered to be the ancestors of animation and film. Peering through a peep show in the 21st century might as well be an analog version of virtual reality—one that transports you to a different time altogether.
[All Photos: Dennis Crompton. Collection: Accepted under the Cultural Gifts Scheme by HM Government from the collections of Jacqueline Gestetner and Jonathan Gestetner and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, 2016]