Gwyn Nicholls, who has died aged 84 years, was a knowledgeable collector and historian of the stereoscope and stereo photography, who assembled a significant world-class collection of viewers and stereo images.
Gwyn was born on 21 May 1939 and after graduating from the Royal College of Art he worked for the Greater London Council until it was closed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1986. After this he remained with the residual body helping to transfer and dispose of its assets.
Gwyn’s collecting interest began with early photographic postcards, but it was from 1987 that he began to actively collect stereoscopes, stereographs in all their forms: on card, metal and glass, along with associated books and ephemera relating to the subject. His job was increasingly flexible and allowed for travel in London and beyond which provided an opportunity to visit auctions, antique fairs, and general and specialist photographica dealers. Much of this was accomplished by trawling catalogues and auction notices in the Antiques Trade Gazette in a pre-online world.
He quickly built up a detailed knowledge of nineteenth century stereography, not simply as a collector but through a deeper understanding of their history and evolution which he did through looking at patents and other sources, and by researching the photographers and publishers behind the many series of cards and unique stereo-daguerreotypes that he collected.
It was 1987 as a new specialist at Christie’s in South Kensington that I first met Gwyn. He was friendly and approachable and always willing to share his knowledge and insights into new consignments. In return he would have a preview of some of the large lots of stereocards that were offered at that time, where he would diligently look at the back and front of each for anything new, sometimes asking for a photocopy, and often bidding at the subsequent auction.
Gwyn was also a regular attendee at the photograph fairs at the Bonnington and other venues, selling duplicates and checking out other dealers’ stock. His table was never easy to pass quickly, for both its content and for a long chat about the market and new finds. He was there as much for the friendships and social side as for the business side, although he was astute at that, too. He also took an interest in making sure particular stereographs went to the ‘right’ home.
Paul Burford commented: "I spent many hours with Gwyn traveling to view and attend auctions, doing photographic fairs and even flying up to Edinburgh to have a look at the Howarth Loomes collection at the National Museums Scotland as well as spending many hours at his home discussing the various viewers and stereoscopic photographers of the nineteenth century, his knowledge and company will be greatly missed".
Gwyn formed one of the pre-eminent stereo collections with a focus on pre-1880s period, selecting the rare, the interesting and significant, and adding to its breadth, selling duplicates and upgrading. His collection was not simply large and comprehensive, but it was also one of the best in terms of the condition and quality of what was in it. Gwyn’s collection was not hidden away: he enjoyed showing it to other collectors and those with an interest, to share knowledge and discuss stereo history. Such visits were not brief – there was always so much to see and Gwyn’s enthusiasm and knowledge, took time to share.
Gwyn’s health started to deteriorate around six years ago and he eventually stopped attending fairs and was less able to add to his collection. He remained in contact with many of those collectors and enthusiasts who had become friends.
He died on 12 November 2023. His wife Sylvia predeceased him, and he leaves behind a daughter and son.
With special thanks to Paul Burford and Paula Fleming for their insights and photographs, and Denis Pellerin.
Dr Michael Pritchard
1 December 2023
Top:: © Paul Burford, Gwyn with a Hurst and Wood stereoscope and part oif his collection behind collection, 2011.
Middle: © Jenny or Ray Norman, Gwyn Nicholls, with Paula Fleming in the background, 12 March 2008.
Lower: © Denis Pellerin, Gwyn Nicholls