The Magic Lantern from the Necromancers to the Marketplace

Roll up! Roll up! Experience a Victorian magic lantern show, performed by Phillip Roberts using traditional nineteenth-century equipment. This film was recorded following the show’s premiere at our series Late Summer Lectures 2017.

Phillip uses a modified late-nineteenth century lantern from the National Science and Media Museum, with original slides from his own collection. His slides include early Copper-Plate Sliders from the 1820s by Philip Carpenter, several slides from the 1840s by Carpenter & Westley, plus other hand-painted, mechanical, moving, photographic and transfer slides spanning the nineteenth century, and into the early years of the twentieth century. The shadow puppets were hand-made by Phillip and Ben Leverett-Jaques. Recording equipment was provided by Anlieka Marconi and Kelly Lopes Horta, with additional technical expertise by Anlieka Marconi.

Historical Background

‘Times are changed, and all for the worser’. Henry Mayhew, the great investigative reporter, once interviewed a street showman about the changing entertainment landscape over the early decades of the 19th century. As the commercial revolution gathered pace and manufacturers produced ever-increasing quantities of toys, instruments and media trinkets, the earlier traditions of showmanship started to dissipate in a new culture of ‘respectable’ entertainment. The showman complained: ‘Green’s dead, and all in the line’s dead, but me. The galantee show don’t answer, because magic lanterns are so cheap in the shops. When we started, magic lanterns wasn’t so common; but we cant keep hold of a good thing in these times.’

At the end of the 18th century the lantern was used as an entertainment device by travelling entertainers. It had an unseemly reputation as a device of the necromancers and charlatans, having long since lost its association with experimental science. The lantern market began to change in the first few decades of the 19th century as the lantern was taken up by new manufacturers and sold as a consumer novelty to the increasingly affluent middle classes. This was the era of the first consumer media technologies; the lantern, the thaumatrope and the praxinoscope brought fantastic visions into the homes of middle-class people and disrupted centuries old traditions of popular storytellers, who now struggled to find audiences. Jean-Antoine Nollet said that the lantern peddler’s fame had made them ridiculous in the eyes of many people.

Using an original (working) 1821 Phantasmagoria Lantern and slides from across the first half of the 19th century (plus some new slides painted especially), this performance tells the story of this transformative moment in the history of media and entertainment. It shows how the new technologies of media helped to shift visual media away from popular storytelling traditions towards a new consumer culture driven by middle-class spending habits.

This video was recorded following the series Late Summer Lectures in 2017. Listen to other lectures from the series here:

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