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Under the quaint heading ‘The Theatrograph’, I found that there were to be exhibited that day two sets of living, or at least moving pictures, one at the Polytechnic in the afternoon and the other at a conversazione in the evening. The chance of comparing these two inventions was not a think to be missed, and I decided that I must be present at both entertainments.
I had, of course, like everyone else, read the graphic description of the cinématographe [misspelled as cimetographe], and I was accordingly prepared for most of what I saw at the Regent Street show. The movements were for the most part wonderfully lifelike, especially the slower and more uniform motions. Some of the more quickly moving figures were very jerky… I am told that it was due to the imperfect working of the mechanism, and that it will be set right in due course.
In the evening I attended the conversazione at the City and Guilds Technical College, with the full expectation of seeing the cimetographe equalled, if not surpassed by Mr Paul’s Theatrograph. I was the more inclined in favour of the latter, in that the details of the mechanism had been shown to me, while Messrs. Lumière et Fils carefully conceal their method of work. An accident, for which Mr Paul is in no way responsible, prevented any satisfactory comparison being possible. The lantern was mounted on an unsteady support, and on the hand-wheel being turned to bring successive films into view, the whole picture joggled up and down on the screen… So far as it is possible to mentally eliminate the superposed motion, I incline to think there is little to choose between the processes.
Lightning, the Popular and Business Review of Electricity, 27 Feb 1896 [discovered by Richard Brown, quoted by John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, vol 1, 1976/1998]
Two demonstrations held on 20 February 1896 (a Thursday incidentally) allowed an anonymous correspondent of Lightning to attend the first Lumière and Paul moving picture shows in Britain. Within four weeks the two systems would be competing commercially in Leicester Square, at the neighbouring Empire and Alhambra music halls, while Paul’s Theatrograph was also running at the Olympia Palmarium, advertised there as ‘ Animated pictures in living colours’. Teething problems with both had been eliminated, and the two received equally enthusiastic reviews.
But what did Paul actually show at Finsbury College, and eight days later at the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street? At the second demonstration, we know he included The Boxing Kangaroo and Rough Sea at Dover, which led to ‘a few people being observed dodging the flying foam’ (both films he and Birt Acres had made during their brief partnership in the previous year). Then there was ‘some performers rehearsing a play’ and ‘an acrobat performing with a pole’ (both assumed to be Edison Kinetoscope subjects) and, tantalisingly, ‘various other scenes’ (reported in The Morning, 29 Feb).
The Royal Institution show was obviously more successful that its forerunner, and led to a member of the audience, Lady Harris, telling her husband, Sir Augustus, that he must engage Paul for Olympia. Then Alfred Moul, dynamic manager of the Alhambra, decided he must compete with his Leicester Square rival the Olympia. He proposed that Paul rename the projector Animatographe, and start a residency that would run until the following June, along with nightly shows in at least five other London music halls.
Animated photography was well and truly launched …
It’s easy to understand why Robert Paul did not proceed with his 1895 patent for a ‘time machine’ experience, inspired by H. G. Wells’ hit story of that year. As he wrote near the end of his life, in 1943, ‘when I found early in 1896 that the public were attracted in large number to the first animated pictures of a simple character, I dropped my over-elaborate scheme and devoted myself to the production of projectors and cameras for the new art of cinematography’. In fact, this hardly does justice to his own experiments in time travel during the coming months. Apart from showing the finish of the Derby to London audiences the day after the race, in June of that first year of ‘animated photography’, Paul would soon be experimenting with bringing the imaginative past to life. His first studio productions in 1898 included a Dickens adaptation, Mr Bumble the Beadle, and two years later he was ready to tackle The Last Days of Pompeii, complete with Vesuvius erupting in the background.
But what about Wells, who had been intrigued enough by Paul’s project to call at Hatton Garden and leave behind some books on ‘extinct monsters’ – possibly illustrations of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs? Received opinion suggests that, after the barely remembered encounter with Paul in 1895, he then busied himself with ‘scientific romances’, and later autobiographical novels, paying little attention to the emergence of cinema until he began to sell adaptation rights to his fiction in the early ‘teens. However, close reading of the early scientific romances tells a very different story. In two extended time-travel stories of 1898-9, A Story of the Days to Come and the full-scale novel When the Sleeper Wakes, Wells incorporated into his furnishing of the future phonographs replacing print, and moving pictures providing both domestic and public entertainment.
In the Regent Street of ‘the days to come’, now ‘a street of moving platforms and nearly eight hundred feet wide’ known as Nineteenth Way, the Susannah Hat Syndicate projected a vast façade upon the outer way, sending out… an overlapping series of huge white glass screens, on which gigantic animated pictures of the faces of well-known beautiful living women were novelties in hats were thrown. A dense crowd was always collected in the stationary central way watching the kinematograph which displayed the changing fashion.
This was accompanied by ‘a broadside of giant phonographs’ that drowned all conversation with their exhortations to ‘buy the girl a hat’. Wells could conceivably have read Paul’s prospectus for the flotation of his Animatograph company in 1897, which predicted a dramatic expansion of advertising potential. But whether he did or not, he clearly foresaw a future of large illuminated displays that did indeed emerge, not in the era of film projection or neon signs, but in the modern phase of electronic displays.
In his most comprehensive imagining of the world some two hundred years hence, the underappreciated When the Sleeper Wakes, the Rip Van Winkle protagonist, Graham, is visited by a tailor who shows him a range of dress options by means of ‘a little appliance the size of a keyless watch’, on which ‘a little figure in white appeared kinetoscope fashion on the dial, walking and turning’. The actual kinetoscope was a bulky apparatus, but this portable device bears an eerie similarity to the Filoscope that Paul’s friend and first cameraman Henry Short had patented in 1898, making use of Paul’s films for its contents. While there is no way of knowing how the illustrator of The Sleeper, the French artist Henri Lanos was briefed, the device he pictured beside Graham’s bed recalls the Phenakisticope used by Muybridge and Marey. One of the figures approaching Graham is also shown carrying a small device, which is presumably what will shortly be used to show him possible dress-styles. Here Wells’ confident prose conveys his conviction that such marvels will become commonplace, while their illustration can only gesture towards how they might look.
Later, confined by the ruling Council, Graham discovers in his room a table-top apparatus near his bed with an electrical switch. When this is pressed
he became aware of voices and music, and noticed a play of colour on the smooth front face […] On the flat surface was now a little picture, very vividly coloured, and in this picture were figures that moved. Not only did they move, but they were conversing in small, clear voices. It was exactly like reality viewed through an inverted opera glass and heard through a long tube.
Graham soon realises he is watching a drama that refers to himself, with a joking reference to ‘when the Sleeper wakes’. He discovers how to change the cylinders in the apparatus, and realises he now has access to a library of dramatisations. Here Wells teases his readers of 1899 by citing ‘The Man who Mould be King’, Kipling’s 1888 story (‘he remembered reading a story of the title… one of the best stories in the world’), followed by The Heart of Darkness and The Madonna of the Future, stories by his new friends Joseph Conrad and Henry James, both of which appeared in the year when the Sleeper was first published. Graham also discoverers ‘an altered version of the story of Tannhauser’, in which the hero of Wagner’s opera ‘did not go to a Venusberg but to a Pleasure City’, which we are to understand is sufficiently pornographic to embarrass this time traveller, ‘who forgot the part played by the model in nineteenth-century art’.
As Graham experiences more of this future world, he discovers that recordings have entirely replaced printed texts, paintings and performances. And remarkably, Wells looks forward to the film and broadcasting studios of the near future
factories where feverishly competitive authors devised their phonograph discourses and advertisements and arranged the groupings and developments for their perpetually startling and novel kinematographic dramatic works.
The extraordinary prescience of Wells’ technological and social predictions was of course a major reason for his reputation as a seer, just as it would limit appreciation of his literary achievements. But what is of narrower interest here is how quickly he was incorporating not only projected pictures, then known by a wide variety of names, and also their immediate forerunner, the kinetoscope, into his imagined world of the future. This tends to confirm that he must have witnessed the kinetoscope in operation during its short-lived heyday in 1894-5, as Terry Ramsaye surmised from The Time Machine, possibly even due to his contacts with Paul in 1895. But it also suggests that he must have seen enough projected animated pictures by 1898, when The Sleeper Wakes began serial publication, to inspire this work’s bold extrapolations.
Far from being a dead end in 1895, the Paul-Wells ‘time machine’ idea should perhaps be seen as having inspired both young men to realise its wonders by more modern means, even before the end of that last Victorian decade.
There is a cryptic reference in a 1943 obituary of Paul to him having ‘travelled the world on his father’s ships’ during school holidays. I don’t know how reliable this claim is. Although George Paul was certainly a ship-owner by the early 1900s, he doesn’t seem to have been at this level during the 1880s, when young Robert was at school (City of London) and college (Finsbury Technical). But presumably the obituarist had something to go on, from knowing Paul personally, which underlines how little we know about his private life.
Once his filmmaking career got under way, it’s clear he believed in combining business with pleasure. The one case we know for certain is when he was Invited to Stockholm in 1897, to deliver a projector to King Oscar II, who happened to be king of Norway at this time (see earlier blog-post ‘A Summons from the King of Sweden’, June 2017). Paul filmed eleven scenes of Swedish life, and followed this with no less than 18 scenes filmed in Norway in 1903 – one of which has happily survived: a 360° pan around the remote arctic port of Hammerfest, recording its appearance before it was destroyed by the retreating Germans in 1945.
But there’s every reason to assume that Paul filmed in many more holiday locations. The first of five subjects taken on Brighton beach dates from July 1896, which he would include in the town’s first extended film show, at Victoria Hall. An 1897 series, which he may well also have filmed, covered tourist sites on the Isle of Man.
Paul undoubtedly loved messing around in boats, perhaps influenced by his father’s business. According to a family friend, the Pauls would later keep a launch on the Thames, and one of his earliest staged films, Up the River, showed a not very convincing child overboard being rescued, allegedly by Paul himself. However, in June 1898, his enthusiasm for being on the water resulted in being on hand to film and help rescue survivors from the H. M. S Albion launch tragedy (see forthcoming post). The Oxford-Cambridge boat race, Henley Regatta, racing at Cowes and even the America’s Cup all feature extensively in the early catalogues, which suggests that Paul may have put his recreational interests to good use.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for an engineer, his other enthusiasms were railways and motoring (more about this to come). The catalogues contain many rail scenes and series, culminating in a multi-part London to Penzance from 1904 – which would be every train-spotter’s dream, if it ever turned up. How many of these might have been filmed by Paul himself must be pure speculation. But knowing that he remained very much a hands-on producer, it seems unlikely that he would have left all the fun to others.
In August 1896, Paul sent the man who had originally got him involved in ‘animated photography’, Henry Short, on a mission to Spain and Portugal. Short was to film picturesque scenes around the Iberian Peninsula, which would eventually make a special programme to show back in Britain. Probably taking his cue from the Lumière practice of showing new work while on location, Short’s eighteen subjects were first seen by local audiences, presented by a mysterious showman, ‘Edwin Rousby’, in a Lisbon theatre. Rousby was actually Hungarian, before anglicising his and his wife’s names, when they appeared at the Folies Bergères with an ‘electric orchestra’. But while on tour in Britain, they had discovered Paul’s Animatograph, and brought it to Spain and Portugal with great success. Now, they had local films to show during the last quarter of 1896.
‘A Tour through Spain and Portugal’ opened, appropriately, at the Alhambra in London on 22 October, where it was also a success (perhaps helped by two bull-fight films being withheld). But the London show would have a bizarre aftermath in January of the following year. The popular writer George R. Sims published a short story in The Referee entitled ‘Our Detective Story’, in which a detective recalls a visit to the London Alhambra, where he sees a former client, whose wife he had been shadowing. When the lights go down, ‘A Tour’ appears on screen, and the sixth item shows a man and a woman in a public park in Madrid. The woman is indeed the client’s wife, seen with his business partner.
Sims’ dialogue has to be quoted: ‘Mrs – gave a shriek. Her husband seized her by the arm. “Stay madam”, he hissed in her ear. “I will see the end of this”. A month later, they are in court, and the films is shown again as evidence of adultery, with the moral of the story: ‘always keep a sharp look-out for the gentleman who takes pictures for the cinematographe’. If this sounds familiar, you’re probably thinking of either Kipling’s Mrs Bathurst, or The Story the Biograph Told, a 1904 American film in which a businessman’s dalliance is revealed on screen when he and his wife go to the Nickelodeon. But like many things in early film, it started in London, and Paul played a – in this case entirely inadvertent – part in it.
I owe this to Stephen Bottomore, who discovered the Sims story and wrote about it in Andrew Shail’s excellent anthology Reading the Cinematograph: the Cinema in British Short Fiction, 1896-1912 (Exeter University Press, 2011). Sadly all but one of Short’s Iberian films are currently lost (the postcard above of the Puerta del Sol is standing in for the one probably seen by Sims) – except for a Spanish dance that’s preserved on Short’s own invention, the Filoscope, kindly loaned by the Bill Douglas Centre at Exeter University for my c.2008 BFI Paul DVD.
Robert Paul was a Londoner. Born in Highbury, he attended the City of London School, newly based on the Embankment, and established his instrument-making business in Hatton Garden in the early 1890s – before film swept him into a new parallel career. And London inevitably provided his first subjects, not only because he had grown up with them all around him, but also because there was a ready market for London sights, around >Britain and further afield. At least twenty of the first fifty film that Paul made in 1895-6 would have been recognisable as London-based.
Most are currently lost (like 90% of Paul’s catalogue of around 800 titles), which leaves a major gap in what could have been a unique record of late Victorian London. What if we had a goods train entering Highgate Tunnel, or a shoeblack at work on a city street, or a view of the Nelson Dry Dock at Rotherhithe, all from the end of ’95 and start of ’96? Or two films of the celebrated Alhambra Music Hall dancers, one of whom was Paul’s wife-to-be, Ellen?
Fortunately, one of the 1896 London scenes has survived, and in excellent condition. Traffic on Blackfriars Bridge dates from June, and an early advertisement noted its ‘beautiful detail’. It is indeed one of the most evocative of all early London views, shot diagonally from the south bank, with the neo-gothic roof of Paul’s old school just visible on the northern embankment (today this is J. P. Morgan’s London headquarters, rumoured to house a bullion cache). The traffic on the bridge is entirely horse-drawn, hansoms and omnibuses, while the passers-by are a fascinating cross-section of Londoners, from the toffs who smile confidently towards the camera to the elderly man who gives it a lingering look, and the boy who never looks up from reading his newspaper.
Visiting the London Transport Museum last weekend, I kept expecting to find Blackfriars Bridge on show, for its vivid transport record. No such luck. But surrounded by the museum’s wonderful imagery of the 19th and 20th century city, I was reminded of one of Paul’s sidelines, showing just how engaged he was with his milieu. In 1901 he published a free ‘folding card’ entitled What to photograph in London, which detailed six ingenious itineraries that would take the ‘visitor in a hurry’ around all the major sights of the city, with advice on how best to photograph them. In fact, users would have needed not to be in too much of a hurry, as each of these routes was reckoned to take a day, ‘according to the zeal of the amateur’.
The full contents of Paul’s photographic guide, illustrated with some fine vintage postcards and the film, are available on Roland-Francois Lack’s superb Cine-Tourist site: https://www.thecinetourist.net/robert-paul-in-london-tour-guide-and-film-maker.html
What do we know about Ellen Paul, wife of Robert? One thing for sure: that she co-starred in his – and Britain’s – very first acted comedy, The Soldier’s Courtship, filmed on the roof of the Alhambra music hall in May 1896 (and now happily restored, though as yet unseen in Britain). She didn’t play the object of the soldier’s vigorous affections, but the busybody who intrudes and is duly punished. Fifteen months later, she and Robert would be married, after some dogged courtship on his part, according to a family friend. The story of their family life includes the grim fact of losing three children in infancy. But it also seems to have had a series of continuing collaborations between the former dancer and the novice filmmaker.
One of these is almost certainly a film that Bryony Dixon has recently turned up in the National Film Archive, Fun on the Clothesline, probably made around the time of their marriage. In this comedy featuring a slack-wire performer, Robert plays the supporting straight man in top hat and tattered tails, while an amused woman watches the antics. Identifying Ellen for certain isn’t always easy, since she was, after all, an actress. But there’s a documented hint that she and Robert played the couple in Come Along, Do! in 1898, both disguised as elderly folk. In this (above), the pair are sharing lunch outside an ‘art exhibition’ before deciding to take a closer look. When we cut to the interior, this is actually the very first such scene change known in film history – although unfortunately the second shot survives only in catalogue stills (which I used for the BFI DVD version). But what happens is that the man is pulled away from his close inspection of a nude sculpture by his wife, following the storyline of a well-known song of the same title (also used for other media, such as lantern slides and stereographs). Obviously a good subject for marital cooperation…
Ellen may well have appeared in a number of other films. But another family friend later confirmed that she played a major part in running the studio that Paul set up in Muswell Hill in 1898. Indeed she is also said to have managed the electrical instrument business while he was abroad. Early film history wasn’t only dismissive of Paul’s foundational role in creating British cinema – blame Rachael Low for that – but it has long ignored or underestimated the unrecorded work of many women. Alice Guy wasn’t the only female pioneer!