Ghostbusting with the Pauls


How rife was spiritualism at the turn of the 19th century? There was certainly no shortage of the great and good (plus quite a few rogues) happy to declare ‘belief’ in communication with the spirit world. One of the leading believers, featured in the Wellcome Collection’s current Smoke and Mirrors exhibition about magic and psychology, was Arthur Conan Doyle. Like the GP he once was, Conan Doyle declares reassuringly in a late filmed interview that it’s no matter of mere ‘belief’, but evidence he’s gathered from countless séances. Somewhat disconcerting from the creator of the forensic Sherlock Holmes.

Several of Robert Paul’s early customers were magicians who’d built their acts around ‘exposing’ fake mediums, notably the Egyptian Hall impresario Nevil Maskelyne. And Paul’s studio produced several sceptical films based the spiritualism vogue, two of which happily survive, with one included in the Wellcome show (above). Their early Upside Down, subtitled The Human Flies (1899) remains one of the most perfect two-shot trick films, and possibly the earliest screen appearance by Paul’s new hiring, the conjuror Walter Booth.


In this satirical take on ‘table turning’, a ‘professor of spiritualism’ (Booth) first makes his umbrella stand up and then has his hat ‘fly onto the ceiling’. The party of four are invited to stand, before they too fly up, and start dancing on the ceiling (a trick recapitulated by Fred Astaire in Royal Wedding).

By 1906, the tone has changed, and it’s Is Spiritualism a Fraud?, subtitled The Medium Exposed,  that appears in Smoke and Mirrors as evidence of contemporary scepticism. Here, we see the mechanics of setting up a fake séance in some detail, with an accomplice hidden in a chest and a spectacular ‘spiritualistic’ display, before the light is turned on by a suspicious member of the group to reveal the deception. Then the fake medium is bundled into his own coffin-like chest by indignant clients, and paraded on a cart through the streets of Muswell Hill, appropriately in the style of a modern-day witch.

By this date, George and Weedon Grossmith had extended their hugely successful Diary of a Nobody, first serialised in Punch in the 1890s and steadily republished through the Edwardian era (and set in Holloway, north London, where Paul was born). Séances were evidently as fashionable in middle-class social life as Tupperware parties would later be. Their anxious anti-hero, Charles Pooter, is sceptical, but intrigued by his wife’s and her friends’ fascination, and by Chapter 22 he too is taking part.


The moment I turned out the gas, and almost before I could get my hands on the table, it rocked violently and tilted, and began moving quickly across the room. Gowing shouted out: “Way, oh! steady, lad, steady!” I told Gowing if he could not behave himself I should light the gas, and put an end to the séance. To tell the truth, I thought Gowing was playing tricks, and I hinted as much; but Mrs. James said she had often seen the table go right off the ground. The spirit Lina came again, and said, “WARN” three or four times, and declined to explain. Mrs. James said “Lina” was stubborn sometimes. She often behaved like that, and the best thing to do was to send her away.

We have no idea if the Pauls ever witnessed a suburban séance. But they must certainly have been aware of what was going on around them, and had probably read Diary of a Nobody, one of the period’s most popular books. Having fun with filmic ghosts was part of the studio’s stock in trade, in films like The Haunted Curiosity Shop and The Magic Sword, but taking mediums as seriously as Conan Doyle and the Society for Psychical Research seems to have been a step too far for this worldly-wise couple and their colleagues.

Here be monsters


To Crystal Palace Park in south London this morning, with grandchildren, to see the historic dinosaur sculptures. Could this amazing spectacle be the missing link in Robert Paul’s and H. G. Wells’ tantalising ‘time machine’ concept?

Consider the evidence. Paul read Wells’ Time Machine novella in serial form in the Autumn of 1895, as it was taking the world by storm. He contacted Wells and invited him to visit Hatton Garden, to discuss the idea of ‘a novel form of exhibition’, that would give audiences ‘the sensation of voyaging upon a machine through time’, to visit scenes in the past or future – according to the outline patent application he lodged on 24 October.

Unsurprisingly, the plan went no further. Its cost would have been prohibitive, and these were two young men with no theatrical experience, on the cusp of great success, pioneering what would later be known as ‘science fiction’, and launching what soon became cinema. But the sheer audacity of the idea continued to intrigue, even after the movies had developed into a kind of ‘time machine’ for their mass audiences. Frequently referenced in early cinema history, it was still vividly remembered by Wells and Paul near the end of their lives.

In 1941, Wells wrote expansively in the science journal Nature that the pair could have become ‘ground landlords of the entire film industry’. Paul swiftly responded in a letter, saying he soon realised there was no need for the cumbersome apparatus proposed by the patent, since audiences were sufficiently fascinated by ‘animated photography’ on screen.

But his letter also revealed more about what actually passed between them. Wells ‘gave his general approval… and proceeded to talk of subjects suitable for the primeval scenes’. Paul recalled that he ‘recommended some books on extinct monsters’ before leaving. We might wonder what could the books might have been? Thanks to the echo of its title, one must surely have been the Revd N. N. Hutchinson’s Extinct monsters; a popular account of some of the larger forms of ancient animal life, published just two years earlier.


Hutchinson’s overview took on board much of the excitement that followed Richard Owen’s 1842 announcement of a new animal group, the Dinosauria, or ‘fearfully great lizards’. And equally important for the start of dinosaur-mania was Owen’s involvement in creating the Dinosaur Court at Crystal Palace, soon after the 1851 Great Exhibition moved to this new home. The great sculptures by Benjamin Hawkins, designed under Owen’s direction, soon became a major attraction – and we know that young Bertie Wells, living nearby in Bromley, visited them as a child. Indeed, he would later have the autobiographical hero of Kipps discuss his future with Ann ‘in the presence of the green and gold Labyrinthodon that looms so splendidly above the lake’ in the Dinosaur Court.


The Crystal Palace dinos have since been through ruin, revision and quite recent restoration. They’re once again a wonderful outing for youngsters, and surely also the visible manifestation of what Wells and Paul must have discussed and imagined that day back in October 1895. A full century before Jurassic Park.

Peering into the past

20190707_221713Last Sunday’s ‘Meet the curator’ show at Bruce Castle Museum was unexpectedly rewarding. A stream of visitors got a chance to peer through Stereoscopes – most for the first time – and into our replica Kinetoscope. Praxinoscopes and Phenakistiscopes where whirled (there were jokes in the 19c about everything being a ‘scope’ or ‘graph’), which worked well for young visitors. But the real surprise was how popular my little Polyorama Polyoptique proved (visible at bottom of the photo). This is my single most valuable historic artefact (one sold recently for $4500, though mine was cheaper!), dating from c. 1830, and is fragile and tricky to operate. But with help, both young and old managed to view the magical transitions from daylight to night that replicated the Diorama effect in portable form. I wish I could have recorded people’s admiring comments as they viewed, making the whole event really worthwhile. Talk about ‘practical media archaeology’ – this was optical magic with cardboard, tissue and daylight, minus any powerpoint!

The exhibition continues at Bruce Castle until 28 July, after which it moves to London Metropolitan Archives, opening on 2 September. But still to come at Bruce Castle are a screening of North London ‘local films’ (including Paul’s) on 19 July and a Reminiscence Cafe about local cinema memories on 23 July.

Family fun with Paul and Acres


Our first Family Workshop at Bruce Castle Museum yesterday. Kids and parents were busy making Thaumatropes and Praxinoscope discs before I brought a trial batch of DIY flipbooks (modelled on Henry Short’s Filoscope: see previous post), using 50 frames from Paul and Acres’ first great hit of 1895, Rough Sea at Dover. It turns out to be quite challenging, tearing out all the cards, then lining them up to sandwich in a bulldog clip. But when it works, the sea rolls in afresh – just as New York newspapers reported, after Edison used this film that Paul had sent him for his first Broadway show in 1896.

We’ve got another Victorian optical entertainments workshop session at Bruce Castle coming up on Sunday 7 July, for which I’ll do some new flipbooks, and bring  some of my  collection of stereoscopes and other devices. A calendar of other events during the run of the exhibition:

5 & 7 June: I’ll be at Bruce Castle both afternoons, showing guests the exhibition, and happy to meet other visitors

13 June  Panel at NECS Conference in Gdansk, Poland: ‘What if we could see early films in their original colour?’ I’ll be showing the experimental tinting of Paul’s Come Along Do as part of my presentation in a panel on Colour.

7 July     Workshop: Victorian optical entertainments: a chance to try them out! 1.30 pm

19 July   Screening: Looking at local films, from Paul onwards. 2 pm

23 July   Reminiscence Cafe at the Castle: Memories of ‘going to the pictures’, and how do we relate to local films? 2 pm

28 July  ‘Robert who?’ Presentation as part of Bristol’s amazing CineRedis festival. 1.30pm

That’s also the day the exhibition closes in Tottenham – before re-opening in a new format with extras at London Metropolitan Archives in Clerkenwell on 2 September


A genuine fake?


One of the pleasures of attending the recent Laval University Colloque Lemai in Quebec City was a chance to see, handle and discuss the actual machinery of early cinema – my keynote was making the case for ‘A material history of early cinema’. And for me, the most intriguing item in this wonderful collection was a projector labelled ‘R. W. Paul 1905’ (seen above, with Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan, one of the organisers).

The projector certainly had ‘R. W. Paul London’ cast into its iron base-plate, which was Paul’s guarantee of genuineness. But it also carried the name ‘Bioscope’, which was Charles Urban’s projector, described by Stephen Herbert as ‘an efficient fast-pull-down beater-movement machine’, eventually manufactured for Urban by Prestwich – a company based in North London, not far from where our Animatograph exhibition is taking place.  So what could this be?

Jean-Pierre and I discussed this in a video interview shot during the Laboratory part of the Colloque. Could it be one of the rip-off ‘copies’ of his projector which Paul mentioned in a letter to the German pioneer Oskar Messter in a 1932 letter? Certainly the intermittent mechanism was a ‘beater’, instead of Paul’s ‘star-wheel’ mechanism, which points to it being essentially an Urban machine. But why, or how, did it also carry Paul’s name? Was it to trade on Paul’s better reputation – ironic in view of Paul’s involvement in creating ‘fake’ or replica kinetoscopes in 1895?

From what I could see in Quebec, there was no way of explaining this anomalous object. François Lemai may have been disappointed that he didn’t have a ‘genuine’ early Paul projector, but for me it was a true archaeological  ‘find’. If we’re serious about material history and media archaeology, we should expect to discover objects we can’t immediately identify – things that ‘shouldn’t exist’. Early film historians have been notoriously shy of talking about the actual engineering, or commerce, of their field (mainly because they lack the skills, if we’re honest). Here I was confronted by a machine I couldn’t classify, or date; and there must have been many such hybrids in the rough and tumble of cinema’s first decade. It was an unexpected, but welcome, case of what I’d come to Quebec to advocate.


Less challenging, but equally exciting, in the Lemai collection was this original box for Henry Short’s Filoscope, showing how it was marketed. Every film museum in the world has at least one of these flip-books, which all used Paul films as their ‘content’, but I’ve never seen an original box before. Use of the buzz-words ‘cinématographe’ and ‘perfected’ (Edison’s term) is interesting, while ‘animated photographs’ was Paul’s phrase. Short was perhaps the key figure in getting film started in Britain, having introduced Georgiades and Trajedis to Paul in 1894, and introduced Paul to Birt Acres in 1895. Without these introductions, Paul would never have started in ‘animated photography’, and the rest would not have been history… Although we know relatively little about him, he’s a key figure in the graphic novel that ILYA and I created to accompany the Paul exhibition (with a little help from Edward Christie, seen here at the exhibition opening).






Forward to the past…


Building a replica Kinetoscope seemed like rather an extravagance on the slender budget for the Robert Paul 150 exhibition. Would seeing a programme of original Kinetoscope subjects – some of Edison’s and the ones that Acres and Paul made in 1895, when Edison wouldn’t supply any more to his competitors – mean anything in the era of smartphones?

So far, I think the evidence is that it does. I’ve been watching visitors (above) and talking to some of them about how the queues for these machines convinced Paul and others (like the Lumieres) that there could be a market for ‘animated photography’. And so encouraged them to combine the magic lantern principle with film strips. Seeing some of the earliest demonstrations of this in our replica seems to have a certain fascination. Some of the films are still incredible – one of Edison’s earliest (from 1893!), Blacksmiths in action, passing the bottle round, and Acres and Paul’s two immortal hits, Rough Sea at Dover and Arrest of a Pickpocket, even in digital, and really take us back to the primal moment. It moves, it repeats…. life captured in a box!

Now for the DIY flipbook (coming soon), an improved Kinetoscope eyepiece, and the RWP150 teeshirt… Catch it while you can, at Bruce Castle Museum, Wednesdays – Sundays, 1 – 5pm. Best transport route probably tube to Seven Sisters, then one train stop (or walk) to Bruce Grove and a bus up the Grove to the Castle. Former home of the creator of the Victorian Penny Post.