Posted by Penelope Lovesy at 11/02/2021 13:59:31
Unfortunately, over the last year going to the cinema has begun to feel like a distant memory (hands up who is still waiting for the new James Bond film…). Whether or not you miss buckets of popcorn and tutting at people on their phones though, you may be surprised to learn that audiences have been cramming themselves into dark rooms to watch moving pictures for far longer than you might expect.
These two lovely devices from the Poole Museum collection that could have come straight out of a Jules Verne story are magic lanterns. On the left is the ‘Metamorphoser’ developed by W.C. Hughes in 1888 and the one on the right is likely one of Walter Tyler’s ‘Helioscope’ models from around 1887. Both Tyler and Hughes were successful makers of lanterns and among the 30 manufacturers based in London alone during the 1880s.
Despite their fantastic names, the principle behind the two devices is quite similar. A concave mirror at the rear directs light from a light source (once an oil lamp or candles but by this time usually an electric arc or incandescent lamp) through a glass slide projecting the image which could be focused by the lens.
This same principle had been used in projection devices for hundreds of years. Samuel Pepys just a couple of weeks before the Fire of London wrote that he had bought ‘a lanthorn, with pictures on glass, to make strange things appear on a wall, very pretty.’ By the 1880s though, advances in lighting and lens technology not only made it far less likely your lantern would be a fire hazard (although as far as I know Pepys’s lantern didn’t start the fire…) and made it possible to project images large and clear enough for whole crowds to enjoy.
If you attended a magic lantern show your experience could vary wildly. You might be in for a sing-along with the lyrics projected on the screen. Alternatively, your host might deliver excerpts from a popular novel or a gruesome true-crime story illustrated by a series of slides or you could be subjected to an immersive ‘Phantasmagoria’ horror show. Ghostly images would be projected on smoke and elaborate moving slides would appear to show things crawling across the walls or impossible illusions.
For these more elaborate shows to work, new types of slides would be developed. Painted in colour by hand on glass there were a huge range including long slides that could be drawn across the lens to give a panning effect, or slides with levers that could be moved to simulate movement. These examples from the Poole Museum collection are ‘slipping slides’. By moving another glass plate from behind you can give the effect of the lion jumping through the hoop or the bottle popping.
The popularity of magic lantern shows, however, had perhaps inspired the invention that would succeed it. In December 1895 the Lumiere brothers first demonstrated their cinematograph to a selected audience made up of the owners of Parisian ‘houses of spectacle’ and suddenly the magic lantern had some major competition.
One man in that audience was renowned film pioneer Georges Méliès (who was played by Ben Kingsley in the film Hugo) and although he couldn’t talk the Lumieres into selling him one of their machines for 10,000 francs he wouldn’t be discouraged. Already a well-established stage illusionist with years of experience using magic lanterns as part of his theatre act, once he got his hands on a projector he used this expertise, as well as much trial and error, to convert it into a working film camera.
Méliès would go on to make some of the most iconic early films including 1902’s sci-fi fantasy Le Voyage dans la Lune, perhaps the most famous of all. He hadn’t forgotten his early days, however, and a year later he would direct La Lantern Magique where two clowns set up a magic lantern where the characters from its slides come to life and escape. For Méliès, who had painstakingly designed his own magic lantern slides for his illusionist act, perhaps this was a final tribute to an artform that was fading away.
Magic lanterns would never again be mass entertainment once the age of film was truly underway. Instead they were widely used in religious meetings and education. This seems to be where the ‘Helioscope’ ended up as it was donated to the museum by Oakdale School in 1967. Many lantern and slide manufacturers would try their hand at film, including Walter Tyler who started the Tyler Film Company, but most would vanish or be absorbed into larger businesses. The Magic Lantern Society, founded in the 1970s, continues to bring together magic lantern collectors and enthusiasts and examples can be found in museums across the world. Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the magic lantern, however, is its influence on generations of pioneering filmmakers exemplified by the name Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman chose for his autobiography, Lanterna Magica.
Now maybe I can find some slides of Daniel Craig…?
The Magic Lantern Society (http://www.magiclantern.org.uk/)
The Dutch Virtual Magic Lantern Museum (https://www.luikerwaal.com/index.htm)