21st Century twist on a Victorian geographical melodrama

Gary PDr Gary Priestnall, at Nottingham University’s School of Geography, is aiming to recapture the sense of wonder which an extraordinary 15-foot by 14 foot, 3D, sculpted model of the Lake District inspired when it was unveiled in Keswick in the 1870’s. It has spawned a new exhibition opening at Keswick Museum and Art Gallery on Monday February 9 which runs until May. It’s part historical detective story, and part 21st Century, technological success story and Ordnance Survey has helped Gary every step of the way. Here is his story. 

A unique 3-D model of the Lake District which would have offered Victorian tourists their first bird’s eye view of the Lake District has been known about since it caused such a stir in 1875. So when the one last surviving, beautifully hand-painted piece of the model, as well as 140 of the original plaster moulds used to create it, fell in to my hands the chance to celebrate the event in 2015 with an exhibition became my cause celebre.

I came by the Mayson Moulds thanks to Nicci Tofts, a former collections manager at Keswick Museum. I was demonstrating the technique of projecting digital maps and imagery down onto physical landscape models derived from digital landscape data, and she knew of some negative moulds relating to a historic landscape model being held in storage. As I had begun working with physical models, and was also aware of expertise in 3D laser-scanning of objects within the University I realised there was an opportunity to do something interesting with these moulds. Soon afterwards I tracked down the original Ordnance Survey maps used to make the model along with some original posters, the commissioning letter, and a single positive piece of model, it became even more interesting given that it was clearly an innovation of its time.

The physical relief models offered visitors unprecedented views of a landscape long before it was common to plan a trip using maps or to have seen an aerial image. Mayson’s Ordnance Model of the Lake District was innovative in attempting to provide such an accurate and faithful landscape model as a visitor attraction.

The attention to detail in the model was incredible. It is hard to imagine what an impact this would have had on visitors who would not have seen anything like it before.

Photographer Henry Mayson and his brother Thomas, who commissioned the model from sculptor Raffaele Monti, came up with the perfect Unique Selling Point for their attraction. Visitors flooding into the area from the newly constructed railway were told that it was the most accurate 3D representation of the landscape they were likely to see, and that it was faithful to the relatively new Ordnance Survey maps which had become de rigueur. Posters at the railway station promised visitors they would “gain a better idea of the whole of the Lake Country than is to be obtained from any other source”.

The model, which included intricate details of the landscape in a six inch to one mile scale, was housed in the Maysons’ photographic studio on Lake Road, Keswick. The building was on the main route taken by visitors from the railway station down to the popular viewpoint at Crow Park on Derwentwater. Keswick was becoming a major gateway to the Lake District for the rest of the UK during the emergence of Victorian tourism. At a time when maps and travel guides were expensive and aimed largely at wealthy travellers, the Mayson model became the first stop for people arriving from large industrial cities like Manchester and Glasgow so they could plan their itineraries and walking tours.

Mayson Moulds

By the 1970s, the model and photographic studio had fallen into disrepair. Attempts to find any remaining pieces of the Mayson model have so far failed. However, one original tile thought to be a sample produced by the sculptor, and 140 negative moulds that were used in the creation of the model were discovered and came my way.

It’s then that key colleagues joined my quest. Dr Katharina Lorenz at the University’s Digital Humanities Centre digitally captured the moulds using a high-precision laser scanner. These laser ‘point clouds’ were then processed and digitally inverted using a Geographical Information system (GIS) within the School of Geography.

Next, a team at the University’s Centre for 3-D Design in the Department of Architecture and Built Environment led by Sarah Thomas used the detailed digital data and the latest milling technology to produce authentic blank replicas of some of the model’s tiles.

The new exhibition has been created in collaboration with Keswick museum’s Curator Sue Mackay and is being run in partnership with Ordnance Survey who have provided digital information and a sweeping floor map which is the exact size of the original to breath new life and meaning into the plaster moulds, re-interpreting them for a 21st century audience. Visitors will have the opportunity to see the last remaining original tile, the original Ordnance Survey maps used to create the model along with the floor map.

Modern technology will also be used to project a series of layers of different types of maps, imagery and animation onto a larger section of replica model to give a sense of the developments in land cover mapping since Victorian times. Bringing the story right up to date, a thrilling virtual ride over the Lakes will be provided by modern digital modelling techniques constructed from current Ordnance Survey data.

OS have provided a floor map for the exhibition

OS have provided a floor map for the exhibition

OS spokesman, Robert Andrews said: “It’s been a delight to see how our 21st century technology, maps, digital information and comprehensive aerial surveying techniques   have helped bring a 19th century masterpiece to life. When Dr Gary Priestnall came to us with his ideas many months ago we were only too happy to help and now his painstaking work and dedication is becoming a reality.”

Today we have many options for digital survey of the landscape, much of which takes place from aircraft, coupled with 3D printing and milling, so we have a great opportunity to explore the power of physical models again using digital technology to help create them. I believe that physical landscape models can play an important part in the modern visitor experience.”

The new exhibition, The Grandest Views: Models of Lakeland from Victorian Times to the Present Day, runs at Keswick Museum and Art Gallery from February 9 to May 17.

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