Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Visit to Turin

The spire of Turin’s Mole Antonelliana reaches high into the sky, dwarfing all the low-rise buildings in the area. This beautiful nineteenth century building, long the highest masonry structure in Europe, is the home of Italy’s National Cinema Museum. This incredible space, with five floors of movie memorabilia, is creatively used to display a fabulous collection boasting 7,000 films, 150,000 posters, 140,000 photographic documents, and a stunning pre-cinema collection. There are some of the most beautiful 18th century peepshows in the world on display. This tour was only the beginning of a weekend meeting of the Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain hosted by the Museum. If there were not enough material to overwhelm one at The Mole, on Sunday morning we were bused out of town to the Royal Palace of Venaria, a former royal residence, for an expanded version of the magic lantern exhibition held earlier in the year at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris.

These two exhibitions would be more than enough for anyone interested in pre-cinema material. Still, for me the highlight of the weekend was a show Saturday night at the planetarium, located on a hillside on the outskirts of Turin. We were ushered into the domed viewing hall and when the lights went off Donata Presenti cast scenes from the night time sky on the domed walls of the planetarium with the assistance of a nineteenth century triunial magic lantern and astronomical slides from the Cinema Museum’s collection. We were treated to the movement of planets, the phases of the moon, comets, and constellations. The quality of the slides, the expert manipulation of the triunial and the accompanying music made it a memorable moment. It was followed by a planetarium show, the beauty and power of which caught me by surprise. Using computer graphics, a marvelous digital show filled the room. I felt transported from my seat into the sky after rotating planets hurled in our direction and before I knew it, I felt engulfed by a glorious galaxy close upon us. It was nothing short of spectacular. All these visual fireworks were followed by a lecture, but that was like trying to have a solid main course after tasting a delightful dessert.

There were also a several talks during the weekend. I presented a talk about two nineteenth century philosophical toys: thaumatropes and phenakistascopes. These toys were meant both to educate and to amuse. I used some new animations for the show and have uploaded them onto my site.


PS: If you should find yourself in Turin and have more time after visiting the Mole the place to go is the Egyptian Museum. The collection, founded in 1824, is quite a treat. My favorites rooms were in the basement and contain an extraordinary collection of statues. If that doesn't tire you out, go to the top floor which houses a large collection of 15-17th. century art, and see if you can find the breathtaking Rembrandt of a lone seated figure hidden in the shadows.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Site Update!

Hello, everyone!

Today, we're premiering the latest flash gallery, this one for turning head illustrations.

Click here to view the turning heads flash gallery!

There are also many new items to see in the Magic Lanterns section:

Professional Lanterns



Programs & Adverts


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Magic Lantern Convention

On May 20-23 the Magic Lantern Society of the United States and Canada held its bi-annual convention in Bloomington at Indiana University. The theme for the convention was the magic lantern and Victorian culture. It was a wonderful meeting full of shows and discussions. The first day began with one of the most intriguing discussions: digitization of lantern material. For some, digitization is primarily a way to share material held in private and public collections in an increasingly web-based society. Digitization will allow for the online study of primary material. It also provides showmen and artists the opportunity to use material to either recreate Victorian entertainment or to adapt material to new forms of visual entertainment.

The papers ranged from a discussion of the use of the magic lantern by missionaries to trying to track the location (and current use) of a series of nineteenth century English pubs illustrated with lantern slides. We learned about the work of two American showmen who toured the country with panoramas and the career of late 19th century lanternist, George Reed Cromwell, billed by the presenter as, “America’s most famous forgotten Magic Lantern lecturer”.

There were practical talks like what is required to put on a lantern show, and new links established, for example, between the magic lantern and moveable books. There was a terrific exhibit of lantern material at the Lilly Library. There were also a number of lantern shows. For me the highlight of the gathering was a rollicking variety show staged in one of downtown Bloomington’s theatres. More than 500 people attended, and were treated to a series of eight eight-minute shows.

There was singing, the reenactment of the Serpetine Dance with lantern light effects, slides from America’s most famous lantern artist, Joseph Boggs Beale, a showing of La Lanterne Magique, an early movie by Georges Melies , and temperance slides warning of the evils of drink. It was a delightful way to introduce people to different forms of Victorian visual entertainment.

The event made me think I should again put the link to The Magic Lantern Society for those who might be curious, to learn more and possibly join the society:

I also thought it would be a good time to put some more of my magic lantern material on my site. I am going to upload in the flash galleries some examples of dissolving slides- a technique first introduced in 1839 by Henry Langdon Childe at the Royal Polytechnic in London and used by lanternists for the rest of the century. Dissolves (fades) would be a technique later employed by filmmakers.

I am also going to put up a selection of additional slides used in the lantern. I hope you will enjoy them.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010


The Zoetrope is for many the most recognizable optical toy of the 19th century. It is one of the easiest toys to demonstrate to others how persistence of vision works. All you need to do is look through one of the many vertical slits and spin the drum and then, all of a sudden, a succession of static pictures appears to be a band of continuous movement.

This week I am adding a flash gallery of six zoetrope strips, and six bottom discs.

Saturday, February 6, 2010


What did people see in peepshows? The variety of images was substantial, but mostly what one could see were scenes of great cities, battle scenes or far off lands. Most views employed some element of perspective drawing, the most typical being the use of a vanishing point, to create a more 3d feeling to the flat image. Large numbers of these images, often based on famous paintings or prints, were turned out in England, France and Italy. The large majority of views were daytime views, the prints mounted on stiff cardboard. However, there were a group of prints which had some transparent elements, often pieces of the print were cut out or pin pricks were made, and colored paper was used as backing creating day/night views and allowing the showman more range in what was shown. Now with such views not only could a day-time image be shown, but when lit from behind, night time effects, often with stars coming out, or lights in windows could be made.

I have just added a page to the web site featuring 60 remarkable day/night views

Click here to see the Peepshow view collection

Click here for a flash gallery of several views

Friday, February 5, 2010

Many people have asked me how I began collecting. The answer is easy: without intention. I used to be a professional photographer and I was living in England when a friend dragged me to a small country auction. I looked around and was attracted to a beautiful wooden object. I thought it was a camera but it was a magic lantern and not only was the lantern for sale but there were about 100 glass slides from about 1880 of daily life in China and for fifty pounds they became mine. Nothing much would have happened if I hadn’t been invited to see a magic lantern show a month later. I thought I might see some more photographic slides but no what I saw left me open-mouthed full of wonder and amazement. What flashed on the screen was an array of moving hand-painted glass slides, wondrous dissolving images, kaleidoscopic effects and an incredible visit to an imaginary circus.

Now I was hooked. It was only a matter of time, exploration and learning and a collection began to form and, as is the case with many collectors I know, the interest keeps expanding and my little collection of magic lanterns spread to include optical toys. I can still feel the thrill of finding new items, of learning something I didn’t know before.

I created a site for two reasons. One was selfish. I had never gotten to catalogue my collection and the web site allowed me to do that. The main reason however was to share the material. The Internet has made many things possible. Long before setting up my site, I used to visit the Hermitage online. I thought maybe some people would be interested in the things I have collected and why not share it? I have added animation because many of the toys were animated and the ability to experience the animation adds to the enjoyment.

I hope to use this blog for several purposes:

1. To let interested people know when I have updated the site or added new features

2. To share information about events, books or other matters pertaining to the collection

3. I would also be glad to share information about other sites collectors or animators

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Last part of the journey includes a fast train (Europe has fast trains that make you mad that stimulus money isn’t being spent to really upgrade the trains in America).

I arrive in Stuttgart to be met by my friend, and web site designer, Georg Fuesslin. We spend a couple of days looking at his collection, and going to two book fairs. Lots to see, much of it ridiculously overpriced, but luckily a couple of finds. One find was a 1881 print of Peppers Ghost (a ghost projection used by magicians and lantern showman based first demonstrated by Professor Henry Pepper at London’s Royal Polytechnic.)

More important than what I found is what I overlooked. Collectors are anxious to rush around fairs trying to find something, something either special or underpriced, or best both. When you walk a fair with another collector you need to have an understanding in case you both see an item. For me it has always been who ever sees it first gets first chance at it. The night before the fair Georg and I talked about a lot of things and one of them was a rare print from 1720 of a dwarf with a peepshow on his back. I have been looking for the print for twenty years.

The fair opened and there was a mad dash by the throng of people to get started. I didn’t want to lose Georg but I was ahead of him and paused at the first table scanning the room. He came up behind me, and said looking over my shoulder, did you see that pile, pointing to a pile of dwarf prints in front of me. And yes, buried in that pile was the very print I have been looking for, and now that the print belongs to Georg, I will have to keep looking .

Oh well, still quite a week.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Off to Paris. Main event is a visit to the Cinémathèque française and a meeting with its director of the collection, Laurent Mannoni. Mannoni is a prolific writer and although he now sees one of his earliest efforts, the book , The Great Art of Light and Shadow as “containing some mistakes”, it is an excellent book for anyone interested in the history of pre-cinema.

Mannoni surprises me after a lovely lunch by inviting me back to see his office. His office is a series of desks in the midst of the storerooms that contain much of the Cinematheque’s collection that is not currently exhibited. He asks whether I would like to look around. Would I? Yes, but I have no time, other meetings. Still, he is kind enough to say we can organize a longer visit some other time. I rearrange some things for the following day and ask if I could spend a couple of hours taking a look.

And it is a great two hours I spend, looking at some of the remarkable material they have. Mannoni seems surprised by how excited I am, saying all this material is contained in their catalogue. It is, but it is different to see an image of the material and to hold the material. Yet again l am reminded of the limitations of my website. It is one reason I keep adding animation. If you can’t touch the material at least you can experience the power of the animation moment.

One day of wandering around the Marais, the Luxembourg Gardens and visiting dealers and book stores. Not much to find but I did pick up one nice little print.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Just landed at Heathrow. Like old times. Grey cold skies, threatening rain but all is well. It’s a long way in to central London from Heathrow, even longer from terminal 5. I’m on my way to the AGM of the Magic Lantern Society of Great Britain. The meeting is held in a building tucked away in a small side street near Euston Station. We are meeting in the headquarters of the Magic Circle, the magician’s society of Great Britain. It is a wonderful building. There are magic posters running up and down the stairs. Our meeting is held mostly in the auditorium.

I have known many of the people in attendance for thirty years and they share my passion for collecting magic lanterns. The highlight of the day was a talk on Etienne Robertson and his Phantasmagoria show. Robertson was a great showman who not only projected images, but also employed a bag full of magic tricks to create the atmosphere of anxiety and fear which heightened the show’s power. After the talk we were treated to the projection of a number of phantasmagoria slides. If you want to learn more about Roberstson and the phantasmagoria you can read Mervyn Heard’s excellent book, Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern or you can visit the web site Early Visual Media and see some original phantasmagoria material.

Another treat of the meeting were the sales/trade tables. One of the nice things I came away with was this Japanese illustration of two peepshows.

click thumbnail to see the whole piece

We also got to see some friends and go to a great jazz club, Club 606. Tucked away in the basement on Lots Road (near the Chelsea Harbour Hotel), this club offers wonderful music and decent food.