The Robert Paul exhibition opens its second run at London Metropolitan Archives on Monday 2 Sept. Hours are 9.30 – 16.45, Monday – Thursday, and Wednesday evenings until 7.30. Open Saturdays 14/9 and 12/10. Come and see how moving pictures first reached London in Kinetoscope viewers. Discover the inventive man behind Britain’s film industry in Animatograph! Robert Paul: an early life in Film. Look out for special events during the exhibition, and pick up a free copy of the graphic novel Time Traveller.
After the exhibition’s very successful opening at Bruce Castle Museum in modern Haringey, where Paul would build Britain’s first film studio, London Metropolitan Archives takes us closer to his starting point – running a small scientific instrument business in Hatton Garden in the early 1890s. Hatton Garden wasn’t yet ‘diamond street’. It housed the Italian immigrant community, which included a number of street musicians, and many businesses, ranging from the games manufacturer Jaques (Staunton chess pieces, ping pong, Ludo etc) to Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine-gun and powered flight pioneer. Amid these, young Robert launched his instrument business in 1891, aged just 22, very much against his father’s advice.
After getting into moving pictures through a commission from two visiting Greek-Americans, which catapulted him into the forefront of developments that would bring full-scale film shows to London’s music halls in early 1896, Paul needed space to build the equipment that was in demand on all sides. Soon, he was forced to rent extra space in nearby Great Saffron Hill – immortalised (if that’s the word) as the ‘emporium of petty larceny’ and the site of Fagin’s squat in Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838).
Cruickshank’s classic illustration of the squalid apartment of the ‘pleasant old gentleman, and his hopeful pupils’
In 1895, Paul tried out a small display of his Kinetoscopes at 39a Leather Lane, which was no more salubrious, before committing to a major up-market exhibition at Olympia, which would lead to realising that projection made more sent than rows of expensive viewers. And after the launch of his Theatrograph in February 1896, kings’ emissaries, magicians and future filmmakers such as Georges Méliès would converged on the modest premises at 44 Hatton Garden, sometimes camping out on the stairs to stay in line for the Theatrograph projectors.
No photographs have been found of what 44 Hatton Garden looked like in 1896 (the current corner block is mid-20th century, built after a major fire destroyed many buildings around the junction with Cross Street in 1914). But Tallis’s street view drawing records what it must have been like. Since the plaque on no. 44, put up during the 1996 ‘centenary of cinema’ celebrations, is too small to read, time for a new, bigger one!