The book springs from Prus’ broader interest in British history before the World War I. “I loved these slides as soon as I saw them, because they were constructed with that wonderful 19th century sensibility and curiosity for the weirdness of the world,” he says. “Each of these slides are very individual, but – when they’re placed together – there’s an overriding idea of the world as a curious and wonderful place.”
Is that something we’ve lost, I ask. “I think in the 20th century, the generalisation of study suffered. You look back to the Enlightenment, education was wider and more liberal,” he replies. “Then everything became more and more specialist. A typical thing to find from the 1950s is one very specific branch of histology, which would be really in-depth and comprehensive. I’m more interested in overarching, general collections of slides.”
Prus is hopeful someone might try and turn the book into a piece of theatre: “I think it is a dream that will never come true, but I would love to see someone take it as a play,” he says. “I think it would lend itself very well to light and movement and dance.” He then turns his focus to the book’s ‘neo-Gothic’ design: “The microcosm has always been inspiration for design students,” he says. “There’s a whole load of research about how to use molecular structures to inform your fabric structures.”
Prus can be an intimidating person to interview. But he’s a kind and open host, with a loose smile, a quick wit, and the ability to talk of the tone, shade and depth of a monochrome photograph as if he were recalling a youthful summer’s day. Prus has genuinely spent a life in photographs. He worked as a full-time art dealer before the archive – “I needed this,” he says, gesturing around, “because I was so fed up of abstract paintings” – and has brought old photographs since his childhood in London and the seaside town of Hastings during the 1960s.