A comprehensive account of the filming and mixed-media (slide and film) presentations of Boer War productions is provided by Ian Christie (2019), together with a useful condensed summary of the political background to the conflict. He sketches in the film activity of Urban and Biograph, and the exhibition of those films, as well as pre-Boer War films of Transvaal, which now had a revival. Paul sent two cameras to the Cape. He also staged about eight Boer War films on the golf course adjoining his Muswell Hill studio; two survive. A detailed account of the films of the Boer War is Ian Christie’s essay ‘“An England of our Dreams”? Early Patriotic Entertainments with Film in Britain During the Anglo-Boer War’, in which he makes use of catalogue descriptions and illustrations to examine the lost Robert Paul films in depth. For further context of Boer War films see John Barnes’s Vol. 4 (Filming the Boer War) and Vol. 5, and Stephen Bottomore’s online thesis Filming, Faking and Propaganda.
In Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema Ian Christie describes how Paul responded quickly to the War, devising ‘at least five different kinds of war film during the first twelve months of the conflict’, one strand being ‘New Patriotic Trick Films’ including His Mother’s Portrait; or The Soldier’s Vision (1900), in which a wounded soldier dreams of his mother and home, clutching her portrait. Christie notes that this could have been copied from a stage technique, ‘raising the lights on another scene behind a gauze screen’. He stresses the importance of examining these subjects across the media, the ‘intermedial image’, so I might mention here that a story with a similarly arranged scene was a screen subject before film, with the magic lantern series The Soldier’s Dream, featured in Laurent Mannoni’s 1995 book Trois siècles de cinéma: de la lanterne magique au Cinématographe.
Along with David Robinson and David Francis, the Barnes brothers pioneered intermedial collecting across the popular ‘optical’ media in post-WW2 Britain. Anyone interested in films before 1901 should seek out the books by John Barnes. His very detailed accounts of the films and filming (and of course the technology) of Robert Paul’s company during the early years were put together during decades of diligent focused research following a particular, and unusual, mixed method of collecting all available materials – photographs, programmes, catalogues – from collectors’ markets and auctions (together with his twin brother Bill), and examining objects and documents in museums, combined with hundreds of hours of trawling through original periodicals in reference libraries. He never used the internet, but found support from the ‘web’ of friends and colleagues. The pre-1901 R.W. Paul films are dealt with in great detail in John’s books, and because they are examined in context with all the other key pioneers in Britain, his insight has particular value.
Paul’s film production strand Army Life comprised shorts (33 minutes in total), ‘Apparently filmed by Paul himself over the summer of 1900’ (Christie 2019), a reasonable conclusion as a contemporary newspaper report states that they were ‘taken by Mr R.W. Paul MEE…’. Or was this simply an assumption by the journalist in The Times, based on promotion by Paul’s company? This kind of report illustrates the difficulties of establishing the exact nature of Paul’s involvement with film productions produced and exhibited under his name.
Films after 1900
Paul’s post-1900 film production has been less well covered in books about early cinema than his earlier films, so Ian Christie’s account in Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (2019) is valuable and quite extensive, incorporating much new information. It would be pointless here to cover the later films that Professor Christie has dealt with in his book, so I will give only a sketchy precis, but perhaps I could look in more detail at two others that particularly struck me.
Mixed media – films and slides
Ora Pro Nobis was already a popular lantern slide set when Paul made his 1901 film, having been produced by several slide makers, including Bamforth & Co. of Holmfirth, Yorkshire in 1897. Paul’s 1901 catalogue describes the scene: weakened by exposure, a young waif dressed in rags dies on her mother’s snow-clad grave. ‘An angel descends, and carries her spirit upwards.’ The short film was not a substitute for the usual slide presentation but a partial addition, to create a mixed-media presentation. The 100ft production would have run for just under two minutes, and
‘illustrates the well known song of the same name, and is highly suitable for use in connection with it … Set of slides for use with the Song, completing the incidents, Plain, 12s.; Coloured, 24s.’
It could be that the slides were obtained from Bamforth or one of the other major Life Model slide publishers. The Bamforth set comprised eight slides; Paul’s catalogue does not specify the number. However, the available commercial slides would not match the set design, actors and other aspects of Paul’s film, so the question arises: did Paul’s company make their own slides for this story? I think they probably did; they had a Photographic Department at that time. If so then somewhere out there, if they have survived, is a set of the only ‘Robert Paul’ magic lantern slide subject known to have been made and sold.
Paul did sell lantern slide projectors, and perhaps he intended to produce more series like this. The 1901 Century projector was arranged to show both slides and films and many showmen were already equipped to do so, but I don’t know of any further sets being advertised. Ora Pro Nobis later became a popular Bamforth set of four coloured picture postcards.
Paul issued at least five films of the spectacular 1903 Delhi Durbar, a celebration to mark the succession of Edward VII and his wife Alexandra as Emperor and Empress of India. It isn’t known who actually directed and shot these films of this dazzling display of pomp, or the succeeding films of royalty and big-game hunting in India or the 18 films made in Norway. In 1903-4 many railway journey films, taken in Britain, were amongst the R.W. Paul productions.
The Kiddies’ Cake Walk
One of Paul’s surviving post-1900 films, on the BFI DVD collection of Paul’s films (R.W. Paul: the Collected Films 1895-1908) is The Kiddies’ Cake Walk (1903). Two clearly very young children give a spirited and quite lengthy one-take dance, mimicking the postures of the adult cake walk performers, with all the complexities of racial stereotyping that these dances involve. The booklet accompanying the DVD briefly explains the popular adult cake walk (or cakewalk) craze. Cake walk ‘turns’ by children, and competitions for the same, were also very popular at this time. It seems unlikely that this quite complex routine was specially taught to these ‘kiddies’ for Paul’s film, so probably they had performed it on stage. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was active in ensuring that youngsters employed to take part in Children’s Cake Walk acts were protected by the provision of a local licence, and there were court cases where this requirement had been avoided. I wonder whether Paul was obliged to obtain permission for these talented tots to perform for the camera? It seems sad that we shall probably never know who these particular two children were, who are still able to entertain us today with their innocent stepping, in the century they would not live to see.
In 2016 a print of A Collier’s Life (1904) was discovered, the only known surviving example of Paul’s series of ‘Day in the life’ actualities. This may have been filmed by his then employee J.H. Martin, known for his later pioneering documentaries. A 1905 film of a royal review of troops was made in Scotland by Paul’s manager Jack Smith. One contemporary account has Jack Smith and three assistants shooting another film in Aberdeen – a building opening ceremony by the King in 1906; a production of half an hour or longer – but local publicity attributes the production to Walker & Co. of Aberdeen, mentioning two local cameramen.
Technical and scientific
During all the film making, Paul’s main business of electrical instrument production continued to expand. Most or all of the instruments were based on, or adapted from, the designs of a long list of scientists and physics specialists, until his own development of an improved pivot around 1900. This isn’t the place to go into great detail about this, but it’s likely that the heavily promoted ‘Unipivot’ became an important element in Paul’s continued high reputation in the field. His expanding factory facilities based on well considered ergonomic principles would also be a factor.
In its early years cinematography was seen in the popular press as one of the many new scientific wonders, including X-rays. This page (Fig. 8) from The New Penny Magazine, 1901, discusses the telephone and wireless telegraphy, while illustrating X-rays and the cinematograph, the latter being represented by an illustration of Robert Paul’s electric camera from 1897.
A ‘stereoscopic’ system
Robert Paul helped out with several film-related scientific and technical presentations, sometimes providing the necessary equipment. My own research has found that Paul provided a projector for inventor Theodore Brown’s presentation of a ‘stereoscopic’ film system to the Optical Society and film industry notables in 1904. More importantly, Brown showed a Paul film of Farm Scenes taken with a camera using Brown’s patented stereoscopic method. A transcript of the lecture includes the section:
‘Our next series is illustrative of Farm Scenes – commencing with the cows being driven home to the farm, cows being milked, and finally, the process of making the butter. For these pictures, which were taken by the special stereoscopic apparatus already described, we are indebted to Mr R.W. Paul, who is doubtless well known to most of you; and it is gratifying to be able to say that we have the co-operation of that gentleman in the work of producing stereoscopic living pictures.’
The Daily Mail was impressed, ‘Quite startling was the effect when the cow lifted its head over a hedge behind which one could look’. Patent expert Henry Hopwood was less enthusiastic, stating that ‘the oscillation was so marked that, in a sensitive person, it might almost induce a feeling of sea-sickness’. Cecil Hepworth was also critical but the following year released a series of his own, Stereo Scenes, using a similar principle. Brown stated:
‘Mr Paul is making extensive preparations to supply the market, and in view of the fact that, since these pictures were taken, improvements have been made in the patent apparatus, we can promise even better results in the future than as yet have been obtained.’
Evidently, this did not transpire. Brown worked for many years to improve the results, but it was never fully marketed. Paul was prepared to send out camera operators for private work at this period. The periodical that Brown edited carried a response to a reader’s question ‘Film Maker Wanted’, and R.W. Paul was among several companies recommended. ‘All these keep expert operators, ready to be sent at a moment’s notice for private jobs.’
A cartoon by Theodore Brown from the Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal (September 1905), ‘No. 1 – The Film Crises’, shows Paul and other producers, looking askance at the Pathé cockerel, representing the French Pathé company who, as the author explains, were importing cheap film into Britain at prices indigenous producers could not compete with. This cartoon was followed by another two months later, shown here (Fig. 9). Paul is pictured on the right, with Charles Urban and other producers of the period, as politician Joseph Chamberlain (supporter of import tariffs) says ‘YOUR ONLY REMEDY GENTLEMEN, IS “PROTECTION.”’ To the left, a cockerel.
So already, four years before Paul left the industry there was great concern about competition from imports. One response was to reduce film prices. In 1907 Paul was instrumental in the formation of the Kinematograph Manufacturers’ Association. Ian Christie writes:
‘Paul ended his speech [at the KMA] with a rallying call, looking forward to English films becoming “universally famous for smartness, cleanliness, clearness, steadiness, and high quality” – a call for the improvement of technical and other qualities.’
He describes Paul’s ‘original Patriotic trick film’ Yellow Peril, and gives a useful account of the Boxer Rebellion, proposing the intriguing possibility that Paul’s films of the South African and Chinese wars ‘may have been intended for specialized audiences, ideally with some form of commentary’. He then gives another helpful potted history of the Russo-Japanese War and examines Paul’s thinking concerning the situation, also the Dogger Bank Incident and Paul’s film of the event, and Paul’s related films including ‘reproductions’ (dramatic enactments) such as one featuring a Russian scouting party being ambushed by Japanese troops. Christie’s wide knowledge of political and cultural affairs of the early 20th century helps considerably in contextualizing the films of this period, especially Paul’s pro-Japanese productions, and the background to his film Goaded to Anarchy, about terrorist activity in Russia. He concludes that these later films showed Paul ‘aspiring to an ambitious level of dramatic realism, considerably before this trend began in French production and in American Vitagraph around 1908’. In his final two years as a film producer, Paul’s output would drop significantly.
Whaling Afloat and Ashore (1908) was filmed in Ireland; it’s an important early record of the extraordinary task of catching and taking apart a whale. The last R.W. Paul non-fiction film, from 1909, about production of the newspaper Morning Leader, was also the longest.
A major section of Ian Christie’s 2019 book, and a valuable asset to researchers and archivists, is a ‘List of Robert Paul Productions 1895-1909’. A quick analysis of the list shows that from 1906 the production of fiction films tailed off significantly with 19 productions in 1907, seven in 1908, and eight in the final year of production, 1909. At an average length of 400ft, this is a total fiction film running time in the last two years of (approximately) one hour per year, which suggests that in 1908-09 the studio output was on average five minutes per month.
In reading through these lists the small number of those with an asterisk indicating that they have survived is depressingly small; something like 10% perhaps. There is good news and hope, however. Many films continue to be identified in archives. For some others, we have at least a frame or two from a catalogue. The illustration reproduced earlier in this series of posts, ‘Electric Attraction’ (Fig. 2 of Part 2) includes sketches based on frames from Paul’s films. Zooming in to the drawings used in this advertisement produces enough information in the eight frames that are clearly seen, with help from a surviving catalogue, for some identifications:
- An explosion scene, with Japanese written characters visible. From All for the Love of a Geisha.
- A young man in lab coat sitting at a laboratory bench, on which there is a darkroom lamp. From The Snapshot Fiend.
- A scene showing a theatre proscenium, with a showman to the left and and a large roller-canvas poster or screen (which comes to life) showing three performers and the text ‘EVERY EVENING at 7.30 / CHAFFINCH THE HARDYS’ – and bandleader below. From The Music Hall Manager’s Dilemma.
- Two men looking through a window at a lady applying face powder. From The Adventures of a Window Cleaner.
- A female dancer doing a high-kick skirt dance. Modern Stage Dances, by Miss Margery Skelly.
- Man in front of a collapsing castle, with a large superimposed man’s head above and a female head below. A scene from The Haunted Scene-Painter.
- Two men being executed by firing squad. From Capture and Execution as Spies of Two Japanese Officers.
- Wagons of a passing train, with men in foreground. Unidentified; just possibly An Affair of Outposts / Russo-Japanese War Scenes.
None of the films from which these sketches are taken, identified here as being from 1904, are known to still exist, but frames from these films are illustrated in the 1906/7 catalogue, which also includes descriptions.
Stephen Herbert, January 2021
Next time: Sparks, explosions, and animated drawings.
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.
- Christie, ‘An England of our Dreams?’ in Richard Abel, Giorgio Bertellini and Rob King (eds), Early Cinema and the “National” (Indiana University Press, 2016) pp. 90-100; John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England 1894-1901. Vol. 4, Filming the Boer War (1992); Stephen Bottomore, Filming, Faking and Propaganda: The Origins of the War Film, 1897-1902, Doctoral thesis, Utrecht University, 2007, available at dspace.library.uu.nl [return to text]
- Trois siècles de cinéma: de la lanterne magique au Cinématographe. Collections de la Cinémathèque française (1995). The relevant slide appears on the cover, and on p. 164. Christie notes that these intermedial connections are dealt with by Frank Gray, ‘The Vision Scene: Revelation and Remediation’, in Scott Curtis, Philippe Gauthier, Tom Gunning and Joshua Yumibe (eds), The Image in Early Cinema: Form and Material (2018), which I haven’t yet read. Before the mid-1990s the word ‘intermedial’ had not, to my knowledge, been used. (‘Intermedia’ usually meant works falling between media, or incorporating more than one art form.) The subject had no name, but we knew what it was. In the 1980s-90s when I was writing Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures I needed a subtitle that would give a hint of the wide range of visual subjects included. I chose ‘multi-media’ – The Art and Inventions of a Multi-Media Pioneer. The term multi-media (or multimedia) was widely used, but usually suggested several media being used in a mixed presentation, e.g. multiple slide projectors and audio tape, or film loops and slides on multiple screens. It didn’t really suggest different themes and stories being used across the visual media, which, amongst other things, is what Brown did – a knife-grinder in a red-green moving picture book and a mechanical lantern slide; a working phenakistiscope as a jigsaw puzzle – but it was the best I could do. The terms intermedia/intermedial are used in other ways, and the word ‘remediation is difficult, as it means different things in different contexts. [return to text]
- John Barnes, The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, Vol. 1 (David & Charles, 1976; revised edition University of Exeter Press, 1998), Vol. 2, The Rise of the Cinema in Great Britain (Bishopsgate, 1983; republished University of Exeter Press, 1996), Vol. 3, Pioneers of the British Film (Bishopsgate, 1988; republished University of Exeter Press, 1996), Vol. 4, Filming the Boer War (Bishopsgate, 1992; republished University of Exeter Press, 1996), Vol. 5, 1900 (University of Exeter Press, 1997). An experienced film maker while still in his teens, and running professional 35mm projectors while still at school, John Barnes had a deep understanding of the technical history. There were of course other collectors who engaged in important intermedial collecting in the UK from the 1960s/70s, notably Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell, Ron Morris, Mike Simkin, Mike Smith, Lester Smith and John Townsend; this list could certainly be extended. [return to text]
- Stephen Bottomore’s thesis Filming, Faking and Propaganda (see Note 1) also covers this ground. [return to text]
- York & Son, G.M. Mason, and Walter Tyler all produced short sets. [return to text]
- A live performance presentation of the Bamforth Ora Pro Nobis slides by illuminago (Karin Bienek and Ludwig Vogl-Bienek) is included in the two-DVD set of lantern slides and early films Lichtspiele und Soziale Frage: Screening the Poor 1888-1914 (Edition Filmmuseum 64, Film & Kunst GmbH, 2011): ‘Ignored by passing churchgoers, an orphan girl freezes to death at her mother’s grave – an appeal to the Christian duty to provide help and alms to the poor.’ [return to text]
- See for example ‘Children in a cake walk competition’, Belfast News-Letter, 25 July 1904; also ‘Permission’, Manchester Evening News, 25 April 1906. [return to text]
- A film of two black children, Rudy and Fredy Walker, performing a cakewalk was made some months earlier by the Lumière company. Cat. no. 1351, Les enfants nègres (1902/3) – see Jim Radcliff’s Songbook blog. [return to text]
- Like Paul I was educated and trained in electrical theory and practice in London by the City and Guilds Institute, but in both cases that was a long time ago, and I’m rusty, even though the galvanometer isn’t. [return to text]
- Brown was a cartoonist, editor of the Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal, and the inventor of stereoscopic devices and processes, optical toys, and the fully-dimensional pop-up book. The process that involved Paul required a special camera arrangement, but the resulting films could be shown with any projector and required no viewing aids. Brown read a paper, ‘Direct Stereoscopic Projection’, before the Optical Society on 15 December 1904. For a detailed description of the process and original references, see Stephen Herbert, Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures (The Projection Box, 1997), pp. 54-55. Not yet known when I wrote that book, in December 1903 Brown gave a public show of this Direct Stereoscopic Projection in his home town of Salisbury, which might have included a film or films taken by Paul or one of his camera operators. [return to text]
- Optical Lantern and Cinematograph Journal, Vol. 1 No. 4, February 1905. [return to text]
- First republished in my Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures (1997), this also appears in Christie (2019). [return to text]
- On 23 May 1907 there was a further cartoon by Brown in the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, showing an Uncle Sam (or ‘Jonathan’) figure filming while under the looming shadow of Edison. A legal judgement in the USA had effectively given Edison a monopoly on film production. The artwork is signed ‘Kin. 1907’; Brown’s name becomes less evident in the periodical at this time, possibly because he was declared bankrupt in 1906. [return to text]
- Christie (2019), pp. 160-165.[return to text]