Rock star reveals all the skeletons in his cupboard


4 October 2013
Jack Malvern Arts Correspondent


Brian May is often described as an accomplished rock guitarist and occasionally as a spokesman for badgers. However, perhaps his most singular achievement is to become one of the world’s leading experts in a 19th-century French fad for creating visions of Hell.

The Queen guitarist has not only co-authored an exhaustive book on Diableries, a series of hundreds of stereogram images created by artists in the 1860s, but designed a device that allows readers to view them in three dimensions.

May, who takes part in the first day of The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival today, first developed his passion for the devilish art in the Sixties when he found one of the cards at Portobello Market in West London.

The card comprised a pair of images that, when seen through a viewfinder, appear as a single 3-D picture. Unlike earlier stereograms of the 1850s that depicted rural scenes, Diableries were photos of artfully constructed models of skeletons going about their business in Hell.

The guitarist was so taken with the scenes that he amassed an unrivalled collection of 180 cards. Only two have eluded him. They are Au Pays de Satan (In Satan’s Country) and Un Rêve (A Dream). “I’m hoping that the book will flush them out,” he said. “We don’t know what the missing ones look like.” As the guitarist studied the images, he learnt that they were not merely frivolities, but risqué social commentaries created at a time when their creators risked imprisonment at the hands of Napoleon III. In one image, Pouvoirs de Satan, the top-hatted and bearded Devil bears a resemblance to the French president.

May said that his interest soon began to transform into an obsession. “I had to look all over the place. Auctions were very helpful.” He has even designed The Owl, a viewfinder that can be folded flat and is included in his book.

As perhaps only a semi-retired rock star can, May spent thousands of hours digitally repairing images that had been damaged over the past 150 years. “I’m normally working till about 5am some days trying to fix these things. It’s like recovering an image through a snowstorm. I have to remove every speck of snow.”

His collaborators on the book, which is entitled Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell, were Denis Pellerin and Paula Richardson Fleming, both photographic historians who specialise in stereo images. The Diableries were made mostly by Pierre Adolphe Hennetier and Louis Alfred Habert. The Frenchmen would spend weeks making models of scenes such as Théâtre de Satan, in which a skeleton orchestra accompany satanic actors while the Devil himself watches from the royal box.

May will discuss the book with Mr Pellerin at an event today at 6.30pm in The Salon tent in Montpelier Gardens at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. He will appear at The Times Forum at 8.45pm to discuss Live Aid with Midge Ure.

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The Times