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Victorians’ ‘virtual reality’ showcased in photographs at ruined abbey

The slides, when viewed through a binocular apparatus known as a stereoscope, created a 3-D effect.

The Victorian version of virtual reality is being showcased at one of the UK’s most stunning ruined abbeys, English Heritage has said.

Visitors to Rievaulx Abbey in North Yorkshire are being given a chance to see the way Victorians captured England’s landmarks in 3-D, as part of a unique exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century photographs.

The exhibition includes Victorian “stereogram” slides, which were invented in the mid-1800s and when viewed through a binocular apparatus, known as a stereoscope, created a 3-D effect.

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(Dr Brian May/PA)

The Victorian love of romantic ruins and the stereoscope helped transform the abbey into a top tourist site.

Through the stereoscope, Victorians were able to see 3-D images of Rievaulx in its changing guises, overtaken by nature, as a pasture for sheep and later shrouded in scaffold as workmen worked to reclaim the site from the surrounding countryside.

Now visitors will be presented with their own modern stereoscope, courtesy of the London Stereoscope Company co-owned by Dr Brian May of Queen, and pack of slides to tour the site, giving them a glimpse of the abbey through Victorian eyes.

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(Dr Brian May/PA)

May said: “My devotion to stereos, rather like my passion for rock music, now spans at least 55 years – 3-D was photography that gave you a feeling of reality, rather than just a flat rendition on a piece of paper.

“So I wondered, why didn’t everybody photograph everything in 3-D all the time? Well, I still haven’t figured that one out.

“But to me, and to all the kids who discovered over 50 years ago what is now known as ‘Virtual Reality’, the excitement has never left us.”

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(Dr Brian May/PA)

Rievaulx Abbey was one of the first Cistercian abbeys to be founded in England, in around 1130.

For 300 years after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII in the 16th century, its walls became overgrown and monastic buildings vanished under soil and rubble, until it was taken into the care of the state 100 years ago.

The exhibition contains images from the 1870s to the 1930s, showing the abbey hidden under blankets of ivy and scrub, Victorian tourists and locals caught on camera, and early 20th century conservation techniques in action.

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(Dr Brian May/PA)
Rievaulx: Reviewed opens to the public from Friday until November 5, with displays in the newly refurbished museum and the visitor centre.

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