I’m starting a blog about Robert Paul, the undersung hero of early British filmmaking. During much of the first decade of the 20th century, Paul was known by his contemporaries as ‘Daddy Paul’, the father of the British film industry. So what do we have in Britain to commemorate this role? Streets and colleges named after him, like the Edison Road, near where Paul lived in North London, or the Université Lumière in Lyon? Hardly. There’s a small plaque on the house he built in Muswell Hill, hard to read from the street. And another on the building that replaced the one where he worked during the 1890s in Hatton Garden in central London. Any display about his pioneering role in London’s Science Museum, or in the Museum of London? You’ve guessed…
Nothing about his work in film on the grave in South London either (see above). However William Friese-Greene’s impressive tomb in Highgate Cemetery still proclaims him ‘the inventor of kinematography’, which is taking him at his own doubtful word. Actually there is one other memorial to Robert Paul, although not one you’re like to come across in daily life. The Royal Society still administers the Paul Instrument Fund, endowed by Paul after his death in 1943 to support ‘scientists in the UK who want to design and construct a novel instrument to measure phenomena in the physical sciences’. And yes, there is a link between that enigmatic gravestone and this final wish.
I put together a DVD of all Paul’s known surviving films some years ago for the British Film Institute – just over 70 out of the 800 or so he produced. Many of the Paul films you’ll find on YouTube come from this DVD, with Stephen Horne’s excellent accompaniment. And new discoveries continue to be made in archives around the world – about which more in later postings on this blog. I’m currently working on a book about Paul and his place in the early moving picture business, as well as some of the other contexts he was active in. I hope this will be ready to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth, in 2019.
Will Britain finally decide to give Paul his due? To recognise that London was one of the key cities where the moving-picture era took off? Will be become a household name, like Edison, Marconi, Lumière? I’m not holding my breath – but working to try to make it happen. Ian Christie