“..19th century history has never been so fresh, so entertaining or quite so surprising...”
.. The Guardian


The origins of the magic lantern are obscure although evidence suggests that it was the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens (1629-1695) who was most significantly involved in its development in the 1650s. In the decade which followed there are various reports of its use by pioneers such as Walgenstein and Kircher as a playful conjuring device.

The first recorded sighting of a lantern demonstration in England occurred in 1666, as witnessed by the diarist Samuel Pepys.

During the eighteenth century there are accounts and printed illustrations of itinerant lanternists, or ‘gallanty’ showmen, as they were known. These opportunist entertainers, many of whom were reputedly of Italian extraction, wandered the length and breadth of Europe carrying on their backs their simple lanterns and large boxes which contained their slides and possibly doubled as a ‘peep-show’ cabinet. They performed at wayside inns, at country fairs and during the winter, when the roads were impassable, gave private performances for wealthier clients.  As one contemporary writer recalled - ‘These showmen were not romantic troubadours, but often as unwholesome and grotesque in appearance as the images they cast onto the white sheet”  Ogres, grinning skulls, bloody battle scenes, shipwrecks and simple folk and bible tales were the lanternist’s main stock in trade. The slides bearing these images were panoramic in format – that is to say a long strip of glass bearing four or five different images or a procession of grotesques characters, which were drawn through the lantern gate.

Pictures with simple movements were also shown – one glass slipping in front of another to achieve the effect of moving eyes, a growing nose or a rocking ship on the ocean.

The lanternist usually provided a florid commentary and occasionally travelled with a companion who might provide incidental music and sound effects. The main problem was the poor quality of the illuminant. Sperm oil and colza oil (distilled from vegetables) were used, which gave off a dull smoky, light and a terrible stench – although this no doubt helped to enhance the nefarious nature of the performance.

More ambitious lantern presentations were only possible after the invention of the Argand lamp in 1783.  The most spectacular and ingenious form of presentation in the 1790s was the ‘phantasmagoria’ show. Originally popularised by Paul Philidor a mysterious magician in Paris in 1793, when the French Revolution was at its height, it was later improved upon by a Belgian, Etienne Gaspard Robertson in c. 1798. Robertson’s show took place in the eerie Convent du Capucine in Paris and employed multiple imaging, back-projection as well as other multi media elements such as ventriloquism, music and live performance.

When the phantasmagoria came to London in 1801, shops were already offering basic lanterns and slide-selections to the general public for the purposes of home entertainment.

In the three decades leading up to Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1837, lantern material became even more widely available. The main reason was the introduction of Philip Carpenter’s copper plate process, which enabled outline images to be printed directly onto the glass. This made mass-production possible. Educators and reformists began to realise the potential of the lantern as a teaching device and the result was a movement to produce far more edifying subject matter with - for the first time – scripts.

Popular subjects included flora and fauna, portraits of the kings and queens of England, bible stories and views of far off places and the natural wonders of the world.

The copper plate process also lent itself to the perfection of an effect known as ‘dissolving or dissolvent views’. Here two lanterns were operated as a single unit.Thus cross-fades, super-impositions and imperceptible transformations could be effected : the idyllic sight of a watermill in summer would suddenly become shrouded in snow, with a frozen mill pond and snowflakes perceptibly falling from the sky. More dramatically a volcano could be observed, at first dormant, and then erupting with showers of lava and smoke.

In the 1830s a new and more powerful form of lighting was adopted by lantern manufacturers – the ‘Drummond light’ or ‘Limelight’ as it was to become known. This was generated by burning together a highly explosive mixture of oxygen and hydrogen gas. The resultant mixed jet when lit was brought to bear on a cylinder of lime. The light provided was equivalent to a dozen Argand lamps. Despite the risk of fires and explosions limelight was widely used by professional operators and remained the most popular form of lantern power until the introduction of the carbon-arc at the turn of the 19th century.

Gradually greater attention was paid to the mechanics of the slide, with circular rackwork movements demonstrating the actions of windmills, bees buzzing around a hive, fountains playing and the introduction of beautiful spinning patterned slides known as chromotropes or ‘artificial fireworks’.  In the 1860s the optical theatre at the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London’s Regent Street, became synonymous with the best in lantern slide artistry. Artists and practitioners such as Childe, Hill and Wilkie were just a few of its luminaries.

However the biggest boost to the lantern came in the 1850s with the emergence of photographic lantern slides.

Now it was possible for Victorians – most of whom would never travel much beyond thirty miles of their own home in a lifetime – to see actual, real-life ‘living pictures’ of India, the Americas and places undreamt of. The process also enabled both amateur and professional photographers to discover the delights of creating their own projected images for public and domestic use.

By the 1870s enterprising lantern-slide manufacturers began producing songs and stories in lantern slide form – initially with religious and temperance themes.  These ‘life-model’ slides featured, not professional actors, but ordinary working people drawn from the community close by the slide-producing studio. In England the most prominent producers of ‘life-model’ sets were the firms of Bamforth, based at Holmfirth in Yorkshire and York & Son of Bridgwater in Somerset.

As these slides sets became more popular they began to encompass more secular subject matter such as the works of Dickens, tales of heroism, slapstick comedy and parlour songs. All were hand-tinted by expert lady colourists.

Magic lantern activity peaked in the early 1890s. Full time professional lanternists could rely upon a constant flow of work. Among their more regular customers were local Band of Hope and Temperance organisations, churches and chapels who offered their congregation fully illustrated services (the ‘Service of Song’) workers institutes and those individuals and societies organising charity bazaars, musical soiree, cocoa rom lectures, childrens’ parties and Christmas entertainments.

A simple lantern in the 1890s would cost around 30 shillings (equivalent to a week’s wages for the average working man). Slides were not cheap but it was possible for any budding showman or woman – amateur or professional – to rent slide sets from opticians shops and department stores in much the same was as we now hire DVD’s.

The magic lantern continued to entertain and instruct audiences throughout the first half of the 20th century, long after the introduction of cinema. In the 1900s and 1910s many lanternists presented ‘double fronted’ entertainments. Short black and white film comedies and actuality sequences were off-set by the already familiar, colourful and restrained images of the magic lantern.

In the United States Nickelodeon theatres featured a rich mixture of live vaudeville, moving pictures and illustrated song slides.

In the 20s and 30s super-cinemas were still finding a use for the magic lantern for advertising purposes and to assist the cinema organist between features.