Michael Burr’s Favourite Model

written for the stereosite by Jonathan Ross, UK

Michael Burr was one of the most pro­lif­ic pho­tog­ra­phers of staged genre stere­oviews in the Vic­to­ri­an era. Fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of mas­ters like James Elliott and Alfred Sil­vester and fre­quent­ly adapt­ing the themes of oth­er pop­u­lar pho­tog­ra­phers, this Birm­ing­ham based entre­pre­neur cre­at­ed a cat­a­logue esti­mat­ed at over 1,000 images dur­ing a peri­od from 1862  to the mid 1870s and evi­dent­ly sold his work in large quan­ti­ties as there are so many of his stere­oviews still surviving.

Like most pho­tog­ra­phers Burr had his favourite mod­els who make reg­u­lar appear­ances in his tableaux, and in the 300 or so of his works in my col­lec­tion I have iden­ti­fied one who appears over 40 times. Many of the mod­els in genre pho­tog­ra­phy have the appear­ance of char­ac­ter actors and it would be inter­est­ing to find out if any had suc­cess­ful careers on the stage, turn­ing to mod­el­ling work when they were ‘rest­ing’.  We know that pho­tog­ra­phers like C.E.Goodman and Mar­tin Laroche pho­tographed actors from cur­rent the­atre pro­duc­tions and many genre scenes look like stage sets though they were actu­al­ly con­struct­ed in pho­tog­ra­phers’ stu­dios for the sole pur­pose of cre­at­ing stere­oviews. How­ev­er the iden­ti­ty of most of the actors/models in genre scenes remains unknown so I do not have a name to give to the actress who will be the main pro­tag­o­nist of this sto­ry. She will just be Our Heroine.

One of her best known roles, and per­haps the most rel­e­vant to read­ers of this arti­cle, is as the wife of  a stere­o­graph enthu­si­ast who, while her hus­band is occu­pied in scru­ti­n­is­ing the lat­est offer­ings from the trav­el­ling stereo sales­man, takes the oppor­tu­ni­ty to flirt with the top-hat­ted pur­vey­or of 3D delights.

An Optical Delusion – Things seen and Things Not Seen

An Opti­cal Delu­sion – Things seen and Things Not Seen’ card is an ear­ly exam­ple of a theme that stere­oview pub­lish­ers explored until the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry, pro­mot­ing the view that trav­el­ling sales­men are gen­er­al­ly a bad lot and not to be trust­ed around your womenfolk.

The first image car­ries a typ­i­cal Burr label, a small strip past­ed to one side of either the back or front of his cards with the title and, just vis­i­ble here, the word Copy­right or Reg­is­tered. Very few of Burr’s cards have his name on them though occa­sion­al­ly you find one with  an M.Burr blindstamp. 

I first noticed Michael Burr’s name in a 2003 pub­li­ca­tion by Tex Treadwell’s Insti­tute for Pho­to­graph­ic Research called The Eng­lish Mas­ters of Genre Stere­oviews, but Denis Pel­lerin and Bri­an May’s book The Poor Man’s Pic­ture Gallery (which con­tains a short biog­ra­phy) and the Nation­al Stereo­scop­ic Asso­ci­a­tions list­ings have opened my eyes to the extent of his out­put. To begin with I did not val­ue his work as high­ly as some of his pre­de­ces­sors but it is a con­sid­er­able achievement.

This vari­ant of An Opti­cal Delu­sion (an Amer­i­can pirate copy) shows Our Hero­ine get­ting a bit more inti­mate with the slimey sales­man and in ‘Where Igno­rance is bliss, tis fol­ly to be Wise’ the rus­tic hus­band has dropped off in his chair while his wife bids Au Revoir to the sales­man, look­ing like a pan­tomime vil­lain in his tophat. As always, Burr’s views are filled with enjoy­able details, in this case the accou­trements of a coun­try cottage.

At this stage I should say that there is no indi­ca­tion of the sequence in which Burr’s images should be viewed but I have always enjoyed cre­at­ing a sce­nario from what were often clear­ly vari­ants made to max­imise the pro­duc­tiv­i­ty of a day’s work in the stu­dio, and imag­in­ing myself behind the cam­era, direct­ing the actors and rear­rang­ing the props.

‘The Cot­tage Coax­er’ is a case in point. We see the same rus­tic cou­ple in the same cot­tage set­ting but there is no evi­dence of the stereo salesman’s vis­it, though the cou­ple have clear­ly had a row about some­thing and the wife is using her pow­ers of seduc­tion to restore her hus­band to bet­ter humour. This fine­ly tint­ed copy in excel­lent con­di­tion has a dif­fer­ent style of label to the one described above but one that is fre­quent­ly found on cards pro­duced by Burr and oth­er pho­tog­ra­phers, so pre­sum­ably a bor­der that was read­i­ly avail­able to printers.

Temptation Tries the Man

The sec­ond set of views we are look­ing at  sees Our Hero­ine still in a hum­ble cot­tage set­ting but, ini­tial­ly at least, in  the vir­tu­ous role of a house­wife, doz­ing in her chair after a morning’s chores. A young admir­er has crept in while she slept and appears about to pull off her bonnet.

The title, ‘Temp­ta­tion Tries the Man’ is set in yet anoth­er font but one that is quite famil­iar from oth­er Burr views.

A sec­ond view, with the title ‘The Thief Cap­tured’, sees her admir­er at her feet with Our Heroine’s hand in his while she holds up her oth­er hand in a ges­ture which seems to say, chan­nelling Bey­on­cé   “Put a ring on it”.

A vari­ant of the view, on an unusu­al yel­low mount,  has the young man on his knees while Our Hero­ine is stand­ing with a coy ges­ture but a rather pleased expres­sion on her face. Per­haps the offer of a ring was forthcoming?

Both these last two images have labels in anoth­er style with a plain sans serif font.

Family Jars

The next three stere­o­graphs, all with the title ‘Fam­i­ly Jars’, which pre­sum­ably means a row or what the British police call a “Domes­tic”, show Our Hero­ine in the same rather run down cot­tage set­ting,  which is now in a hell of a mess, fend­ing off a man in a carpenter’s hat with just a brush and a pair of bel­lows as he pokes his head through the door, an evil expres­sion on his face and a sort of cud­gel in his hand. She has the kitchen table tilt­ed against the door to keep him out.

The man, inci­den­tal­ly, is played by the same actor who the trav­el­ling sales­man in the first view of this sto­ry was hop­ing to make a cuck­old of.

In the next view the man is through the door but his wife has the bet­ter of him and he is flat on his back, tan­gled up in the table, as she keeps  him down with her broom, shak­ing her fist at him as if to say “Don’t try that again, Buster!” He holds up his hand sub­mis­sive­ly in admis­sion of defeat.

In the last Fam­i­ly Jars vari­ant, the cou­ple are rec­on­ciled and Our Hero­ine offers her mis­cre­ant hus­band a glass of stout while he, with his leg up on her knee, smiles back, glad the ruc­tion is over.

A dif­fer­ent­ly titled image, of the same actors in the same set­ting, is ‘After a Storm cometh a Calm’, and needs no fur­ther explanation.

Curiosity Punished

‘Curios­i­ty Pun­ished’ is the title of the next three stere­o­graphs, show­ing Our Hero­ine and a female com­pan­ion in slight­ly nicer sur­round­ings – at least the plas­ter isn’t falling off the walls  — but being pestered by a young fel­low who can’t restrain the urge to get a look at the girls in their désha­bille. Men tend to come off the worse in their encoun­ters with Burr’s women and this fool­ish chap is about to get a soaking.

In the sec­ond vari­ant, Our Hero­ine has the intruder’s head trapped in the door and he doesn’t look at all hap­py about it. Her boot­ed foot is up against her friend’s chair to give her extra force and the crino­line she is hold­ing looks like it could make a use­ful net to catch the fool in.

In the third vari­ant, curios­i­ty may not have killed the cat  but it cer­tain­ly got this chap a good past­ing. Our Hero­ine is whack­ing him with a hair­brush with one hand while the oth­er has a hold of his hair. Her com­pan­ion is poised to tip a jug of cold water over him too. “That’ll teach you to spy on us!”

Rustic Music

‘Rus­tic Foot Bath’ was the name of a pop­u­lar stere­oview first pub­lished under the name of Phiz (the pseu­do­nym of Alfred Sil­vester) c.1858 and recon­struct­ed almost exact­ly by Michael Burr lat­er, as was his wont. In Burr’s ver­sion Our Hero­ine rocks the same sort of off the shoul­der look as in ‘Curios­i­ty Pun­ished’ and has the same female com­pan­ion as in that series only this time her friend is en trav­es­ti, play­ing the role of a roman­tic musi­cian, ser­e­nad­ing his lady love. In the Phiz ver­sion both parts are also played by women but I don’t think there was any Sap­ph­ic sug­ges­tion intend­ed, just an excuse to show some bare ladies’ legs.

In a vari­ant of the image Our Hero­ine has her arm around the musician’s shoul­ders and is gaz­ing at ‘him’ with an ador­ing look.

Burr, like oth­er Genre pho­tog­ra­phers, was not one to waste a good set on a sin­gle image. After all quite a lot must have been invest­ed in build­ing the scenery, not to men­tion hir­ing the cos­tumes and pay­ing the actors. So in the fol­low­ing view, Rus­tic Music becomes ‘Rus­tic Foot Bath’ and Our Hero­ine strikes a rather more raunchy pose, break­ing the forth wall with a Fleabag style glance at the view­er and the sug­ges­tion that it is not just her feet she is about to wash — her top might be com­ing off at any moment.

Our Hero­ine also appears désha­bil­lé in an image enti­tled sim­ply ‘Evening’ in which she pos­es with a water­ing can  and some severe­ly dehy­drat­ed pot plants.

Love Below Stairs

In the “Love Below Stairs” series we see her in the role of a domes­tic ser­vant at a time when fol­low­ers were not allowed. In oth­er words if you were someone’s cook or house­keep­er you were not per­mit­ted to enter­tain gen­tle­men callers. In this nice sepia stere­o­graph called ‘The Sur­prise’, Our Hero­ine is con­ceal­ing a man  under the kitchen table, hav­ing heard her mis­tress approach­ing. He is hop­ing that the lit­tle dog does not give the game away, while she is giv­ing us a look as if to say “Don’t breathe a word!”

In a rather grub­by vari­ant, the man is dis­cov­ered and it looks as though the dog is to blame. Our Hero­ine knows she is in trouble.

Her mis­tress sends him pack­ing though he twirls his mous­tache defi­ant­ly. Our Heroine’s pleas are to no avail.

Domestic Difficulties

In ‘Domes­tic Dif­fi­cul­ties’ we see her Upstairs in her employ­ers’ break­fast room, clear­ly involved in some kind of alter­ca­tion with her mis­tress, while the man of the house cau­tions her from behind a raised news­pa­per. We may assume that he and she have been car­ry­ing on and per­haps she feels secure in her posi­tion? The pale green mount and the crop­ping of the images sug­gest that this is a pirat­ed view.

In this fine­ly tint­ed vari­ant we see Our Hero­ine beg­ging her mas­ter for help while he denies every­thing and his wife shakes her fist in rage. We can see that Wifey has snatched off her servant’s cap and is hold­ing it in her left hand. Per­haps it was of too fine a qual­i­ty for a house­keep­er and may have been a gift from her master?

In the final vari­ant of Domes­tic Dif­fi­cul­ties Our Hero­ine is ordered out of the house, but her mas­ter is giv­ing us a look  as if to say “Oh well, it was worth it!”. He is slip­ping her some­thing, which I assume is some mon­ey, and she doesn’t look too put out.

The male char­ac­ter is once again played by the Michael Burr reg­u­lar who you may recog­nise as the rus­tic stereo enthu­si­ast we met ear­li­er and the belea­guered car­pen­ter in Fam­i­ly Jars

What are you all looking at?

Out on the street, Our Hero­ine joins a crowd with her female com­pan­ion from Curios­i­ty Pun­ished and a lit­tle black boy I recog­nise from oth­er Burr views. The title of the view is ‘What are you all Look­ing at?’

To which the answer, accord­ing to Ray Nor­man from worldofstereoviews.com is Donati’s Comet. “First observed on 2 June 1858 from Flo­rence Obser­va­to­ry. Through­out 1858 the comet increased in bril­liance until it was clos­est to Earth on 10 Octo­ber. It was the first comet to be pho­tographed and was the most bril­liant object in the night sky in the 19thcen­tu­ry.”

Our Hero­ine was not con­fined to play­ing rus­tic types or domes­tic ser­vants and in the next two views we can see her as a lady of fash­ion on the streets of Lon­don in her splen­did crino­line. ‘Art in ’60 – Your Like­ness & A Shave 6D’ (six­pence) gives us an insight to the pho­tog­ra­phy stu­dios of the time with street hawk­ers tout­ing for busi­ness and enter­pris­ing trades­men like this bar­ber offer­ing pho­to­graph­ic por­traits in the same premis­es that you might vis­it for a shave. The sign above the win­dow reads “Por­trait Saloon and Easy Shav­ing Shop”, with one beside it announc­ing  “A Lit­tle Like­ness & a Shave 6D!!! Ladies the Same, With Crino­lines Extra” (though I imag­ine they were not offer­ing to shave any ladies!  We can see some stere­oviews dis­played in the shop win­dow and in frames out­side, along­side por­trait pho­tographs in oth­er for­mats. The hawk­er has some more por­traits in a frame hang­ing from his neck and there is a sign on the ground which reads “Stop!!! The Lat­est Out. Crino­lines Done Outside.”

In the first view we can see the barber/photographer in the door of his busi­ness with a cam­era on a tri­pod and a dark slide in one hand with the oth­er raised as if to say “Hold it!”  Our Hero­ine is seat­ed with a lit­tle dog on her lap, watch­ing with amuse­ment as the hawk­er and a deliv­ery boy (played by the young black actor we saw in the crowd scene) trade insults.

In a vari­ant of the scene we can see that hawk­ers are per­sis­tent types as Our Hero­ine appears to be declin­ing his sales pitch but he is not pre­pared to take No for an answer. He has grabbed the hem of her crino­line to stop her mov­ing off, in the process reveal­ing her pet­ti­coats. The pho­tog­ra­ph­er and the deliv­ery boy are find­ing the whole per­for­mance quite funny.

Crinoline Difficulties

Still dressed in her fash­ion­able crino­line and accom­pa­nied by her lit­tle dog, Our Hero­ine next appears in a series called ‘Crino­line Dif­fi­cul­ties’, with alter­na­tive titles ‘The Dan­gers and Per­plex­i­ties of Crino­line’ or just ‘The Dan­gers of Crino­line’.  All the vari­ants involve her hav­ing prob­lems get­ting through a nar­row gate­way and var­i­ous­ly com­ing a cropper.

This first one has been in the wars a bit but it is the only one I have seen with the tophat­ted and mon­o­cled gent look­ing on. It has a W. H. Mason of Brighton blind­stamp, as do quite a few cards in my col­lec­tion, lead­ing to the con­clu­sion that Mason was a retail­er and pos­si­bly not a pho­tog­ra­ph­er himself.

In this one a young labour­er is lean­ing on his shov­el and look­ing on. He has either offered to help or has made some wise­crack about her crino­line but, either way, Our Hero­ine is fend­ing him off.

How­ev­er, as we know,  Pride Comes Before a Fall and her crino­line catch­es on the gatepost and brings her crash­ing to the ground. She will be glad of the young labourer’s help now.

Unob­served she does no bet­ter. That crino­line is just not going to let her get through unscathed.

The sto­ry­line cer­tain­ly serves as a good excuse to show a lot of lacy under­wear and provoca­tive amounts of ankle.

This one comes with the title ‘A Styl­ish Affair’. Our Hero­ine is well and tru­ly in a pick­le and her poor lit­tle dog can do noth­ing to help.  Down she comes with a crash again.

There is noth­ing left to do put pick her­self up, see if she can fix her crino­line and hope she hasn’t sprained her ankle! 

Crino­lines were most def­i­nite­ly a gift to pho­tog­ra­phers and artists with a sense of humour but Our Hero­ine would doubt­less have been glad to take hers off at the end of the day’s shoot.

The Elopement

A series called ‘The Elope­ment’ sees her in the guise of a young lady run­ning away from her board­ing school with her lover, a sailor.  The first  image has the title ‘Is He Com­ing?’.

She hears him call to her and lets down a rope lad­der in readi­ness for her escape. Her pos­ses­sions in a bun­dle and a box tied up with string.

She begins her descent and her lover fol­lows after, hold­ing her wrist to make sure she is safe and car­ry­ing her bun­dle for her.  In my opin­ion Our Hero­ine looks more suit­ed to play­ing the pro­pri­etor of a board­ing school than one of the pupils  but we can allow Burr a lit­tle the­atri­cal license in cast­ing his favourite mod­el once again.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly the course of true love nev­er did run smooth and Burr casts the same cou­ple in a view enti­tled ‘The Sailor’s Adieu’.  He is still wear­ing his sailor’s uni­form while she seems to have walked into a melo­dra­ma from anoth­er era and is dressed in a corset­ed vel­vet gown with a tiara on her head. Our Hero­ine stands dis­con­so­late, her eyes down cast, a hand­ker­chief  ready to wipe away her tears, while her sailor boy waves good­bye. He prob­a­bly has a girl in every port. A chess­board on the table shows the game is over.  This scene may have noth­ing to do with the Elope­ment series and may well just be an exam­ple of Burr mak­ing use of two of his actors while they were around, but it is irre­sistible to try to make the connection.

Some time ago I acquired the fol­low­ing image of Our Hero­ine look­ing rather like The Queen with an anx­ious expres­sion, trans­plant­ed into some papi­er maché cave, and when I saw that the card was titled sim­ply ‘Fear’, I didn’t know what to make of it.

How­ev­er the fol­low­ing two cards, acquired lat­er,  have the title ‘Haidee and Juan, Can­to 2nd’, which denotes a scene from Lord Byron’s poem ‘Don Juan’.

The epony­mous hero Juan has sur­vived a ship­wreck and is cared for in a cave by a pirate’s daugh­ter Haidée.

Our Hero­ine looks rather grand­ly dressed but I sup­pose if you have a tiara it‘s a shame not to wear it.  It appears that the pirate is also a slave trad­er so per­haps in the ‘Fear’ image Haidée is fright­ened that he will find out that she has been shel­ter­ing Juan. Who knows?

Any­way, I have now shared most of the images of this anony­mous actress from my col­lec­tion of Michael Burr stere­o­graphs with you and would like to end with one with this sim­ple title:

It shows Our Hero­ine iso­lat­ed in a cave, but dressed to kill and hold­ing onto her anchor of Hope  — which seems like quite an inspi­ra­tional image for The Time of Covid, while writ­ing from Lon­don dur­ing a peri­od of Tier 4 Lockdown.

I hope to find more images of her in days to come  and maybe to dis­cov­er her name. In the mean­time, I hope you enjoy this story.

Jonathan Ross (London, UK)

Jonathan Ross began to take an inter­est in stereo pho­tog­ra­phy after a decade of work­ing with holog­ra­phy. He helped estab­lish the first Euro­pean gallery of holography,the short-lived The Holo­gram Place, in 1978 and his pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny SEE 3, was one of the pio­neers of embossed holog­ra­phy, now ubiq­ui­tous in the fields of secu­ri­ty print­ing and pack­ag­ing. He sold SEE 3 in 1990 and began col­lect­ing holog­ra­phy and oth­er 3D imag­ing tech­niques, doc­u­ment­ing his acqui­si­tions on the Jonathan Ross Holo­gram Col­lec­tion web­site. In 1998 he opened Gallery 286 in his Lon­don home on Earl’s Court Road and has had a con­tin­u­ous exhi­bi­tion pro­gramme of con­tem­po­rary art and holog­ra­phy since then in addi­tion to curat­ing exhi­bi­tions of holog­ra­phy inter­na­tion­al­ly.

Insta­gram-pro­file: jross286
Web­sites: www.gallery286.com, www.jrholocollection.com