Stereoscope natural histroy tour with Harry Cox

I have just had one of the most fascinating interludes of entertainment in my life. It really amounted to no more than a peep show and

I have just had one of the most fascinating interludes of entertainment in my life. It really amounted to no more than a peep show and it was made possible by the loan of a primitive looking, binocular-style contrivance which had stamped on its broad metal eyepiece "Exposition-Universelle Internationale, 909", and on its base "The Perfecscope, trade mark USA Patent, Oct. 15, 1895".In an adjustable frame at the back I inserted a series of photographs. Each had the same picture printed twice on a card with a small space between them and photographed from slightly different angles. When focused and glimpsed through the special lenses the view was that of a three dimensional picture. This engrossing in-depth effect was so realistic that I felt suddenly right away from the outside world. In one picture it seemed I was standing right beside the photographer as he took a picture of a peregrine falcon standing over its prey on a rock on the steep slopes of Brean Down, with Steep Holm beyond.It was incredible. What a wonderful world will burst upon us if television can ever achieve three-dimensional representation. The device is generally known as the stereoscope, and a dictionary definition is: "a binocular instrument for blending into one two pictures taken at slightly different angles." I have a faint recollection that one of the most fascinating Christmas presents I had as a child was a toy of stereoscopic character. It was a pantomime scene set in a palace, with characters in gorgeously coloured costumes. They were posed in a scene and were static, but seen through the glass front they had vivid three-dimensional realityMy introduction to the stereoscope came in a curious way. I was well acquainted with the Mr John Cox, son of Mr Harry Cox, FZS, the former lessee and warden of Steep Holm and Brean Down. John did fine work with the local Observer Corps during the war and he and his wife, Morfydd, built themselves a remarkable bungalow on Bleadon Hill, where John was a poultry farmer. They made such a superb job of the bungalow that it was featured on television and in a nationally famous magazine. His father, Harry, was probably the most noted naturalist the Weston area has ever known, and his interests were far from confined to the wildlife of Steep Holm and Brean Down. He knew every nook and cranny of Lundy Island, and in his youth made jaunts to scores of islands ranging from the Scillies to the Hebrides. His naturalist interests dominated his life and to them he linked photography. From the pictures I reproduce, which are all his, it will be recognised that he was extremely skilled with the camera, considering the limitations of both cameras and processing in his day. It must have taken him hours of watching in hide-outs to capture some of the superb pictures he obtained - and he had no telephoto lens. He had many of them made into lantern slides and as magic lantern lecturer on wildlife he was in great demand all over the country.Harry was a pioneer in bringing natural history talks into BBC radio programmes. At one time he wrote a weekly nature feature for a London newspaper after the style of that of the late Kenneth Allsop, the famous naturalist and broadcaster, in whose memory Steep Holm has been purchased.Steep Holm must always be a memorial to two men and Harry, like Kenneth, has a memorial stone on it.Harry Cox died in 1949. Some years afterwards, in a chance meeting with his son John, I asked what had happened to all his father's collection of photographs and lantern slides. He said he thought they had all been dispersed one way or another, but that he would have a look around to see if anything that had survived would interest me.Shortly afterward he called at the Mercury office bringing a very battered and dusty cardboard box in which were some lantern slides and also number of natural history photographs each with the same picture duplicated on a card and inscribed "Vivagraph Series, Harry Cox, FZA, Copyright." They were numbered on the back, on which there were also printed notes by Harry on the subject.The lantern slides were obviously the odd "left-overs" of his collection and did not include any of natural history note, but showed his original Robinson Crusoe-like hut on Brean Down, Post Office linesmen at work installing the telephone line across the Down for his use, the range board that used to stand at the old fort for the benefit of the garrison, and a couple of reproductions of cartoons by Alfred Leete, the famous Weston cartoonist. I pondered over the photographs. What could have been the use of these cards each bearing the same picture in duplicate? Vivagraph? My dictionary yielded me no enlightenment; must have been a trade name.Who better to turn to than Miss Jane Evans, Woodspring Museum's curator? "The card could possibly have been used in a stereoscope," she said. "We've got one; try it". And so the wonderland of viewing wild life pictured three-dimensionally was revealed. Reflecting further and reviewing what I had written about Harry Cox years ago, all was revealed to me in what I had myself set down but had forgotten. I quote:"He got together a series of remarkable photographs for use in a stereoscopic instrument, the Vivascope, which once had been in vogue in schools all over the country."A linking commentary was written by F. A. Knight author of Seaboard of Mendip and, in days long before those of television, on can picture youngsters peering fascinated at the three-dimensional pictures of the birds and flowers of Brean Down."With these comments I leave off to find space for some of Harry Cox's pictures, and regret that I cannot reproduce the three-dimensional magic for you.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on November 10, 1978.


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