Brian May: There’s life in the old Devil yet


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25 October 2013 by Christopher Middleton

Brian May is still raising hell with Diableries, a book of demonic 3D images from the 19th century.



Devil May care: Diableries are picture cards designed for stereoscopic
viewers in Paris in the middle years of the nineteenth century


For more than 40 years now, Brian May has been staring into the eyes of the Devil. It all began one day in Portobello Road Market, when he was shown a piece of card on which were printed two scenes of cavorting skeletons and demons. This was his introduction to Diableries, pictures created by 19th-century French artists, showing Satan and his minions both at work and play. What made these images still more memorable was that, when viewed through a stereoscopic eyepiece, they coalesced into a three-dimensional whole.

All of a sudden, pointy-horned satyrs loomed frighteningly into the foreground, brandishing tools of infernal torment while at the same time stirring vats of lost souls in an outsized cooking pot. “To me, that moment when the 3D kicks in is always magic,” says the former Queen guitarist. “Suddenly you find yourself in another world. You just can’t help but be stunned by the ingenuity, by the beauty and the sheer madness.”

Now he and his team of researchers have brought out the first compilation of these images, a weighty 280-page book, complete with May’s patented viewing device, which he calls the “Owl”. Suitably for a tome that will first glimpse daylight at Hallowe’en, the black-clad volume is alive with tableaux that range from the grotesque to the ghoulish, from the cruelly satirical to the plainly insane.

Brian May
Brian May is an avid collector of diableries (PA) Photo: Tim Ireland/PA Wire

In one scene the Devil supervises the production of cannonballs in his nightmarish foundry. In another he travels on a demon-driven train, waved off by a skeletal crowd at the Gare de Purgatoire. Every picture tells several stories. While ranks of bony soldiers line up for inspection by a whip-wielding Satan, one of the young recruits snatches a sneaky cup of juice, sold by an itinerant vendor. Elsewhere, hook-wielding skeletons pile crowds of unfaithful lovers into the basket of a hot-air balloon; a cowering couple hide, but a scratched wedding certificate (the symbol of infidelity) shows that they will be next.

“There is just so much detail in these images, so much to look at,” says May. “They repay you if you take your time and take everything in.”

The original dioramas were constructed using clay models, made by top-class sculptors. Other skilled craftsmen and seamstresses made clothes for the clay figures: tiny, exquisitely made costumes. “None of these survive today,” May notes sadly.

“Once the scene had been created and photographed, the models would be broken up and used again for a different tableau.”

Before that happened, two pictures would have been taken, each from a slightly different angle. The pair of photographs would be printed side by side on the same piece of card so that when viewed together through a stereoscopic viewer they gave the illusion that you were looking at a 3D image.

“It’s the same technology as I encountered when I was a boy, and had Weetabix for breakfast,” says May. “They used to give you two pictures of animals with each packet, and when you looked at them through the viewer they provided you saw the whole image in three dimensions. That’s what first got me interested in this kind of thing. Even during my days playing with Queen, I would take a stereo camera on stage with me. Sometimes I’d take pictures, sometimes I’d ask a local photographer to take them.”

The results of which are now available through the London Stereoscopic Company, the company that May set up to market his visual treasures. Indeed, Diableries is not his first foray into the world of ocular illusion; four years ago, he produced a book called A Village Lost and Found, in which he displayed the work of pioneering 3D photographer T R Williams, who recorded daily life in the Oxfordshire hamlet of Hinton Waldrist.

This latest work, however, has presented rather more technical problems, in terms of displaying the devils at their unblemished best. “When you blow up the images on a big screen, you see there are pocks and bubbles all over them,” says May. “You can Photoshop them out, but it takes many long hours of work. It’s been a real labour of love, but at the end, I’m thrilled that we can now communicate this phenomenon to a 21st-century audience.”

Two 19th-century artists were principally responsible for these images. One was called Louis Alfred Habert; the other was Pierre Adolphe Hennetier, who started as a sculptor for the Church, producing pretty straight illustrations of what life would be like for sinners in hell. “Gradually, though, a little bit of dark humour started to creep in,” May explains, “as well as references to current events and figures in authority. In fact, although a lot of the scenes are taking place in hell, most of the skeletons and other characters seem to be having a fair amount of fun.”

It soon becomes clear that, when portraying “The Infernal Library” (skulls on the shelves instead of books), or “The Stock Exchange in Hell” (signs promising 200 per cent profits), the creators of Diableries were not so much envisaging the afterlife as satirising present-day society. The skeletons mirror the excesses of the living, in particular their drunken suppers and festivals. A theme recurs: whatever the activity, evil – in the form of Satan – always comes out on top.

“Whether it’s a horse race, a bicycle race or a card game, he always wins,” says May. But there was a political as well as a moral purpose. “These images became an opportunity for artists to express sedition. You get scenes, for example, in which Napoleon III is subtly portrayed as the Devil. Quite, often, artists got thrown into jail if they produced work which displeased the powers that be.”

There is no question that these 150-year-old works were meant as more than just a mild diversion or entertainment. Physically, too, there was more to them than met the eye: lay them flat on a table and they appear monochrome, but lift them up to the light and the colour floods in. Emeralds sparkle, faces flush pink, and the eyes of the devils take on a sinister, ruby-red gleam.

How fitting that the man who, with his Queen colleagues in Bohemian Rhapsody, declared “Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me” has rescued the king of the underworld from the archival basement. He has, he says, only one regret. “When I started out, you could pick up these images for a tenner,” he sighs. “Now, people want hundreds of pounds a go.” ‘

Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell’ (London Stereoscopic Company, £40, with Owl viewer) is available from Telegraph Books (0844 875 1514) for £36 plus £1.35 postage

Brian May and colleagues talk about the project in London on October 30 and November 1, and in Settle, North Yorkshire, on November 6; an exhibition runs at Gallery on The Green, Settle, until December 14. See London Stereo