In the Spring of 1896 Robert Paul was engaged in frantic film-related activity, using his own first camera based on a design similar to that of his projectors. Initially these were ‘actuality’ films – Blackfriars Bridge being a well known and very attractive example that survives. For his fiction film A Soldier’s Courtship the story was provided by Alfred Moul, the theatre’s manager, who reportedly ‘staged … the comic scene’, with the new camera operated by Paul. What’s fundamental here is that Paul not only tells us Moul was present at the filming – presumably taking care of instructing the actors (i.e. directing the film, as credited by the British Film Institute) – but also acknowledges Moul as providing the basic idea of supplementing the ‘actualities’ that were starting to be shown at Britain’s first screenings, and being filmed or planned by Paul, by filming fiction plays:
‘In April, the Alhambra Manager, Mr Moul who wisely foresaw the need for adding interest to wonder, staged on the roof a comic scene called “The Soldier’s Courtship,” the 80-feet film of which caused great merriment.’
Moul ‘wisely foresaw the need for adding interest to wonder’. The ‘wonder’ of seeing life in movement on the screen was somewhat limiting, narrative was now needed, and Alfred Moul nudged Paul into this new genre. It seems odd, with the 1895 fiction productions shot by Acres for Paul’s Kinetoscopes, and screening of such films as Practical Joke on the Gardener (L’Arroseur Arrosé) by the Lumières, that Paul had not recognised the value of fiction already, but we can only accept Paul’s generous recollection of Moul’s influence at face value.
An important news film, the 1896 Derby, cheered on by audiences
There’s something about camera running speeds that I don’t remember being much remarked upon and it’s interesting and I think important, for more than technical reasons. In an article in The Strand magazine about Paul filming the 1896 Derby (with Paul’s own-design camera made late in 1895 or early 1896) the writer states:
‘At first the photos were taken at the rate of about 12 a second, but during the exciting finish the pace increased to 30 and 35 a second … The operator slowed down somewhat when the two favourites had passed the winning-post, but the curious photos of the crowd pouring over the course were taken at about 15 a second.’
The actual frame rates would have been estimates only, but ring true. John Barnes reproduces the entire passage in his first volume, but without comment. Was this technique actually used? From a viewing of the film, I would say that probably it was. In the opening seconds figures in the distance seem to be moving quickly. After the semi-slow motion of the horses passing, the individual figures rush the course – initially in slow motion, then faster as the camera speed is apparently reduced. Was the technique used in earlier films? It would have been especially valuable for Kinetoscope productions, where a given period of action needed to be accommodated in a very short film length. It’s also an important philosophical point about film’s manipulation of time, even within a single shot.
That same year saw Royal film presentations by Paul and those of his one-time collaborator Birt Acres. In July 1896 Paul attempted to interest the British Museum in acquiring filmic records for the interest of future generations. Only one film was accepted, the 1896 Derby.
Theatrical performers, a tea party, and a dirty boy
The R.W. Paul film repertoire in August 1896 comprised actualities, arranged incidents, and variety performances. The latter included the ‘eccentric’ performer George Chirgwin (Fig. 1) and the Hengler Sisters (Fig. 3), a singing and dancing act famous on both sides of the Atlantic. Paul probably filmed them while they were appearing at the Alhambra. Short fragments of both films survive as Filoscope flip-action sequences (Henry Short patent).
Children appeared as several subjects, including the amusing Twins’ Tea Party (1896). Christie remarks: ‘two little girls engage in escalating warfare – very different from the well-behaved infant in the Lumières’ Baby’s Breakfast’. But the Lumières had already made a film called A Childish Quarrel (Querelle Enfantine), which was apparently shown at the Empire Theatre Leicester Square in March 1896. Presumably, a child also appeared in You Dirty Boy! (1896).
This lost film is generally thought to have been a representation of the ‘Manneken Pis’ statue in Brussels, as the catalogue entry states ‘Famous statue comes to life’. That might seem a reasonable assumption, but it seems to me that this would have been a rather difficult topic to turn into a motion picture at that time. Could the subject actually have been Giovanni Forcadi’s 1878 statue – made in bronze, terra cotta, and porcelain – of a glowering, elderly woman roughly washing a small grimacing urchin next to a tub? It’s better known as the picture used by its copyright owner in their famous Pears Soap advertisements, and the title of the piece is ‘You Dirty Boy!’ Perhaps this was an advertising film? Thomas Barratt, Chairman of Pears Soap, had a huge budget for advertising, which had included projecting ‘dissolving views’ onto both Nelson’s Column and the pillars of the National Gallery. This sort of commercial promotion was so ubiquitous that a law was passed in 1894 restricting such advertisements. If I’m right about the subject of this film, it may be that Paul neglected to mention that it was an advertisement as showmen were probably used to getting their Pears advertising slides free, and might not have wanted to pay full price for a film version. That same month, October 1896, William Heise had filmed A Morning Bath, an African American mother washing her baby, for the Edison Company.
New optical entertainments had often been picked up as advertising gimmicks. Paul’s mentor Silvanus Thompson had written about ‘Optical Illusions of Motion’, another of his interests, back in 1880 in the journal Brain; concentric circles appeared in motion when the paper they were printed on was rotated slightly from side to side. This effect was used in the 1890s by Pears’ with credit and presumably payment to Thompson, as an advertising flyer for their soap.
In the summer of 1896 Paul’s cameraman Henry Short went to Spain and Portugal to shoot film subjects. Some of these films were shown by the adventurous Short in Lisbon, a notable achievement, before their presentation in London in October. Only two survive today, including A Sea Cave Near Lisbon, a ‘pictorial triumph’ which remained in the Paul catalogue for years. Paul went on to attempt to define the copyright status of films – were they photographs, already covered by the Fine Art Copyright Act of 1862? He became the first in Britain to copyright a film by this arrangement, ‘sending in a frame from The Sea Cave Near Lisbon, and noting that Henry Short had assigned copyright to him in January’.
Paul was engaged in both filming and exhibition in Brighton in 1896/7, and while busy with his instrument business he tried to start a new public company to deal with the film activities. His ambitious prospectus of 1897 included the proposal for ‘animated portraits of individuals’ and a small, cheap apparatus aimed largely at amateurs. Investors failed to come forward.
Fire, and a Jubilee
In May 1897 over 100 people, mostly women, were killed when a film show at the Charity Bazaar, Paris, burst into flames due to mismanagement of the oxy-ether illuminant. This disaster caused much concern. Robert Paul responded to the danger by introducing a ‘Fireproof Animatographe’, which I shall examine in a technical section later. In addition, Paul’s travelling projectors could now be equipped with a portable dynamo, eliminating any use of flammable liquid or gas illuminants, even when electric supply was not available. However, the dynamo would have provided electricity for a carbon arc lamp with open flame, and the lamp house was a source of heat immediately behind the flammable film.
In 1897 Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee was a major subject for Paul, and also 30 or more cinematograph camera operators from other companies from home and abroad. This familiar ground for early cinema enthusiasts was extensively detailed by John Barnes. Paul had assistants with two cameras at the event, and secured a good camera position for himself with a third. I recently found an advertisement suggesting that there was evidently some extra space, and Paul tried to offset the cost. On 15 June he advertised in the Standard newspaper:
‘JUBILEE OPPORTUNITY[?]. Robt. W. Paul, 44, Hatton Garden, has a few SEATS remaining in the best position in Maskelyne’s Pavilion in St. Paul’s-churchyard; reasonable prices. For plan &c. apply to Robt W. Paul, JUBILEE DAY.’
In 1997 Luke McKernan created a unique evening’s entertainment based on 25 minutes of surviving film footage of the event and incorporating lantern slides, singing, and readings from contemporary diaries. This mixed-media presentation showed how even fragmentary material from the early days of cinema can engage and entertain modern audiences in a theatrical setting. An illustrated (later) text version, with links to film clips including two by Robert Paul, can be read online.
Magician Carl Herz gave extensive early shows with a Paul Animatographe projector, first in Africa and soon including many eastern countries as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Exhibitor Edwin Rousby used R.W. Paul films in Paris and Lisbon. Rousby seems to have had a regular supply of films from Paul, including the important subjects shot by Henry Short. There were further popular shows bearing the Paul Animatograph name, in Australia and Canada. In the summer of 1897 Paul went to Scandinavia at the bequest of the King of Sweden and Norway, who wanted to ensure the successful installation of the projector, and during which Paul was granted special facilities for filming. His visit opportunistically coincided with the Stockholm Art and Industry Exhibition. Paul’s prolific output of 1897 and ’98 continued the emphasis on actualities of British locations.
A new studio, and more intermediality
In 1898 Paul bought a four-acre site in Muswell Hill (North London) to build a studio complex, trumpeted in his new illustrated catalogue, and coinciding with a waning public interest in films of ‘Trains, Trams, and ’Buses’. The established procedure of presenting one short film after another in a related series gradually gave way to multi-shot films: the early years of the development of film editing.
It’s been suggested that Robert and Ellen Paul played the elderly couple in the comical Come Along Do! in ‘the earliest surviving fictional film to create narrative continuity between successive shots,’ which ‘concisely foreshadows the expanding future of narrative cinema…’ Only half the two-shot film survives. A variation of this subject had been used in 1894 to advertise a Kinetoscope film in America. Mrs Good implores her elderly husband ‘Come Away, Ezra!’ as he enjoys a peep at a dancing girl. ‘The Old Lady does not seem to want her husband to continue looking at the famous dancer performing in the Kinetoscope.’
Another 1898 production, A Favourite Domestic Scene, features a pillow fight between two boys in their bedroom, triggered by their sister who surreptitiously tickles their noses with a feather duster. The mother enters and drags the girl from her hiding place under the bed, and spanks her. The film is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8ofdMxuH38.
The bedroom pillow fight was the subject of films by other makers including Lumière, American Mutoscope and Biograph, Edison Studios, and Siegmund Lubin, but this subject had been a genre favourite before motion pictures.
Stereoviews by several makers had appeared from the 1880s (perhaps earlier), and at least one version has a mother spanking the girl. After its initial appearances in films the subject was still sufficiently appealing to stereoview publishers, and presumably their customers, to be sold into the 20th century. The stereoview had two advantages over the film. It could fairly easily be coloured, especially after half-tone lithography was used to produce cheap colour stereo cards. Paul’s films could be ordered as coloured versions, but that was expensive. The other advantage, of course, was dimensionality. The close-up figures stood out well when posed for this subject. Film had other major advantages: the narrative (fight, mother entering, girl being punished) could be developed in one scene, and the physical energy of the players, matched or exceeded by the flurry of myriad feathers as they escape from the pillows. Being white these show up well against the background. The novelty eventually died away, for a generation. Then in 1926 Abel Gance revived the pillow fight in a frenetic, camera tracking, double exposure, fast-cut and multi-image torrent; the screen divides into as many as nine segments as the fight comes to a climax. This section from Napoleon vu par Abel Gance is the epitome of what silent film could achieve in kinetic display. I wonder whether when he planned that scene Gance remembered watching, as a very young boy, the old pillow fight films of the 1890s?
Space and time
Many years ago I was given the job of reassembling a Kinora reel of a Lumière pillow fight. All the photographic paper leaves, several hundred, had come apart from the core and were mixed up in a bag. I laid them all out and started pushing them around; pictures showing no feathers gathered in a bunch at the top, etc. As I worked on this temporal puzzle I became more aware of the nature of the fragmentation of time that film produces and requires; now more evident when the individual images had been randomly scattered. Rather than working to the usual spatial clues found in single-picture jigsaw puzzles, aided by the picture on the box top, my actions were being guided by the pre-knowledge of the time-based movement the sequence contained, and would correctly represent if I got the reassembly right. No wiggly edge-connections and interlocking tabs and cutaways, but instead multiple ‘seriate’ elements that could be followed through from one photo leaf to another to tie the regular rectangular pieces together in their correct sequence. When the job was finished I had the pleasure of seeing the result in actual motion in my Kinora viewer, a definite advance on the satisfaction of dropping the last cardboard piece in place when completing a conventional puzzle. It was a memorable experience that stays with me; somehow, the shattered artefact made me consider the flow of time as being more fragile than we imagine. And now I wonder, as an experiment, should I have simply reconstructed the reel with the leaves in their shuffled state? Time as chaos. I think that’s what Gance might have done.
The Sailor’s Return (August 1898), which featured a baby, is the production that may have involved the fatal poisoning of Paul and Ellen’s son, which we will return to later.
Magic and disaster
During the early years a number of magicians who were connected with Paul became involved in film presentation: David Devant, Neville Maskelyne, Carl Hertz and Georges Méliès. Magic/trick films were to be a staple part of the R.W. Paul Company’s output. Paul’s Upside Down; or, The Human Flies (1899) features a room that magically turns upside down. This ingenious production involved inverting both the camera and the painted wall and furnishings, which Christie rightly considers ‘remains a striking effect, apparently achieved by the simplest means’. He notes: ‘It may also be evidence that Paul’s film production was benefiting from a new recruit, the conjurer Walter Booth,’ but considers that modern attribution to Booth as “director” ‘seems premature, not to say anachronistic’. We shall look at this later.
In 1898, the Thames launch of the battleship HMS Albion ended in disaster. Four film companies recorded the event, with Birt Acres being the official filmmaker. Paul hired a tug from which to film, only to find himself rescuing victims from the water when a wave created by Albion’ s launch caused a stage from which 200 people were watching to collapse and 34 people, mostly women and children, drowned. It was one of the worst peacetime disasters in Thames history. Acres suppressed his films of the launch for what he said were ethical reasons, and criticized ‘someone’ who had taken a view of ‘poor sufferers struggling in the water’, clearly a reference to Paul’s footage. In defence, Paul insisted that the filming – with his automatic electric camera – did not hinder the boat’s rescue work, and profits went to the disaster fund. The incident and its polarised reception was remembered for a while. Two or three years later, Living Pictures author Henry Hopwood wrote about the uses of film:
‘If sensation is demanded, it is alleged that one may have a strictly private exhibition of an execution par guillotine; but surely nothing more terrible could be desired by the most morbid mind than a view of the disaster at the “Albion” launch, the horrors of which were repeated before an audience at a London music-hall (to the strains of “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep”!) only thirty hours after the breath had left the victims’ bodies.’
Birt Acres’ copy of Living Pictures, in my collection, falls open on this page, and he has marked this passage in the margin.
At the turn of the century Paul attempted to link film with performance: ‘animated songs’, some with specially commissioned live music. This interesting subject is dealt with in more detail by Ian Christie in ‘Suitable Music’, a chapter in The Sounds of the Silents in Britain, where we learn that the format was introduced by Esmé Collings in 1899.
Next time: A new century
Stephen Herbert, December 2020.
Notes and references
Acknowledgments will appear in the final part of this multi-part blog post, together with a full bibliography. This article has not had a full fact check, so if you intend to use the references cited you should first go back to original sources to confirm them.
- Westminster Bridge also survives in part, as a Filoscope flicker toy. [return to text]
- This early filming activity has been dealt with in John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, Vol. 1, 1976 and 1998. [return to text]
- R.W. Paul, C.M. Hepworth and W.G. Barker, ‘Before 1910: Kinematograph Experiences’. Proceedings of the British Kinematograph Society No. 38, 1936. Delivered to a meeting of the British Kinematograph Society held at Gaumont-British Theatre, Film House, 142 Wardour Street, London W1, on 3 February 1936. [return to text]
- ‘The Prince’s Derby shown by Lightning Photography’, The Strand Magazine, Vol. 12 No. 68, December 1896. The changing of the cranking speed would have affected the exposure, but if necessary this could have been adjusted during the printing of positives from the negative. Birt Acres also experimented with different speeds for different subjects, as a journalist reported in 1897: ‘The speed at which the photographs were taken must depend, of course, upon the nature of the subject. A regiment of soldiers, marching twenty feet from the camera, and at right angles to it, would require perhaps twenty views per second; but he had for some time been endeavouring to show the movement of clouds, and for this purpose took about one negative per second, and passed the film through the lantern at a speed of sixteen to twenty views per second, thus exaggerating the movement but retaining the form’. (Thanks to Barry Anthony). Appendix Two of Frontiersman to Film-maker: The Biography of Film Pioneer Birt Acres, FRPS, FRMetS, 1854-1918 (CD-ROM, The Projection Box, 2006), pp. 22-23. Acres’ talk was reported in the Journal of the Camera Club (Proceedings, May 1897). However, this account does not indicate the technique of changing speeds during different parts of the same action shot. Hopwood wrote about speeds in ‘Kinematographic Pictures: Their Errors and Falsities’, The Optician, 29 September 1899, but I don’t have access to a copy. [return to text]
- See Toni Booth, ‘Filming the Prince’s Derby, 1896’, in the Science and Media Museum blog blog.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/princes-derby-1896-filming [return to text]
- Ian Christie, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (2019), p. 79. [return to text]
- For references, and more about street advertising at this period, see Stephen Herbert, Industry, Liberty, and a Vision: Wordsworth Donisthorpe’s Kinesigraph (The Projection Box, 2017), chapters 17-18. [return to text]
- An American Pears advertisement shows an African American woman about to wash her child in a tub, and on the wall is a poster of the original Pears ‘You Dirty Boy!’ picture. The Pears subject was also adapted by satirical cartoonists in themes that included women’s suffrage and racism, and was still being used in Britain in the 1930s as a seaside photographer’s ‘put your heads through the holes’ picture board. [return to text]
- Silvanus P. Thompson, ‘Optical Illusions of Motion’, Brain, Vol. 3 No. 3, October 1880. Pears Soap advertisement, ‘Curious and beautiful optical illusion’, Boston Parish Magazine (England), October 1894. [return to text]
- Christie (2019), p. 94 and Chapter 10. [return to text]
- Frank Gray has covered the Brighton activities in great detail. See ‘Innovation and Wonder, Robert Paul in 1896’, in Frank Gray (ed.), Hove Pioneers and the Arrival of Cinema, (University of Brighton, 1996) and ‘The Sensation of the Century: Robert Paul and Film Exhibition in Brighton in 1896/97’ in Vanessa Toulmin and Simon Popple (eds), Visual Delights II: Exhibition and Reception (John Libbey, 2005). [return to text]
- Presaged by Georges Demenÿ’s Photophone portraits of 1892, these animated portraits would appear most extensively with the Kinora system designed and patented by the Lumières in 1895/96. See my article ‘Animated Portrait Photography’, History of Photography, Vol. 13 No. 1, January-March 1989. [return to text]
- Small 35mm film projectors for attaching to a magic lantern light source were available from several suppliers from 1896. In 1908 Paul suggested the use of these small 35mm machines for the presentation of scientific loop films in technical education. See R.W. Paul, ‘The Kinematograph in Technical Education’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 1908. In 1898 Birt Acres would launch the world’s first amateur, narrow-gauge (17.5mm) film camera-projector system, the Birtac, which did not sell well. Charles Urban’s Biokam of 1899 was more successful. A review of these home movie systems by Living Pictures author Henry Hopwood, ‘Cinematography for All’, appeared in The Optician, 29 March 1901, and is reprinted in Volume 1 of my compendium A History of Early Film (2000). [return to text]
- Perhaps Paul also had in mind the fire that had closed Birt Acres’ first public film show venue the previous year, though this was thankfully without the cost of human life. For a recent account of the Paris fire and the device that caused it, see David Evans, ‘STOP PRESS – Fire at the Charity Bazaar in Paris’, Magic Lantern Gazette, Vol. 32 No. 2, 2020 (Magic Lantern Society of the US and Canada). One of the most comprehensive accounts is H. Mark Gosser, ‘The Bazar de la Charité fire: the reality, the aftermath, the telling’, Film History Vol. 10 No. 1, 1998. [return to text]
- The Beginnings of Cinema Vol. 2: The Rise of the Cinema in Great Britain, provides an expansive coverage of the filming of the procession, including Paul’s involvement. [return to text]
- Standard, 15 June 1897. [return to text]
- Luke McKernan, ‘Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee’, lukemckernan.com/htdocs/queen_victoria_diamond_jubilee.pdf. [return to text]
- Described in detail in Barnes Vol. 1 (1998). [return to text]
- Christie (2019), p. 170. Christie and other writers agree that the man doesn’t seem to be Paul. [return to text]
- Ian Christie, ‘Confronting a Challenge’, blog post on 30 May 2020 – see paulsanimatographworks.wordpress.com. [return to text]
- Advertising card for the film Pas Seul No. 2, Edison Electric Parlour. Reproduced in Ray Phillips, Edison’s Kinetoscope and its Films (Flicks Books, 1997). The attraction was May Lucas, eccentric skirt dancer of the ‘London Gaiety Girl Company’. [return to text]
- Paul’s Undressing Extraordinary (1901) also includes a burst pillow, with the cloud of feathers raining down on actor Walter Booth. [return to text]
- Napoleon also includes ‘the greatest snowball fight in cinema history’, and a snowball fight was a subject of Lumière films in the 1890s. The Napoleon pillow fight scene was lost for decades, but was found in the 1960s. A still from the scene was reproduced in a post on Luke McKernan’s Bioscope blog in 2012. [return to text]
- The term ‘seriate’ was used by Eadweard Muybridge to describe the individual discrete components – human or animal figures, moving objects – that travel independently of each other throughout a moving image scenario. [return to text]
- The baby’s death occurred or was registered on 23 August 1898. [return to text]
- Christie (2019), p. 171. [return to text]
- Hopwood (1899), p. 231. [return to text]
- Ian Christie, ‘“Suitable Music”: Accompaniment Practice in Early London Screen Exhibition From R.W. Paul to the Picture Palaces’, in Julie Brown and Annette Davison (eds), The Sounds of the Silents in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2013). [return to text]