The Magic Lantern that you will see at this performance dates from the 1870 - 1880 period. At this time the art of projection of both still and moving images reached the zenith of technical brilliance during the Victorian era. The most exquisite of these lantern slides were completely hand-painted, but photographic images were also used. 
 

The Magic Lantern played a very important part in Victorian society. Temperance and religious lectures were given but the lantern was also used in education, for the demonstration of scientific principles and to relay the latest news of world events. Eerie 'Phantasmagoria' shows were given in Victorian parlours that were the equivalent of present day horror films. 
 

The history of the Magic Lantern goes very much further back than the Victorians. Recent research has indicated that a form of 'Magic Lantern' may have existed in the time of Solomon. Aristotle developed the theoretical basis of the science of optics. With Friar Roger Bacon, born in 1214, the art-science of light and shadow reached a point at which magic shadow entertainment devices could be built. Leonardo da Vinci invented the 'bulls-eye' lens, a primitive but effective condenser. In the second quarter of the seventeenth century a Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher, was credited with the invention of the 'Magic Lantern'. The chief problem in Kircher's day was to provide sufficient light. Early illuminants included the sun, candles and oil lamps. Much later limelight and carbon-arc illuminants were introduced, but the final solution arrived several centuries after Kircher with the invention of electric light. 

The eighteenth century saw the birth of 'Phantasmagoria'. This was a type of light and shadow show popular immediately after the French Revolution in Paris in the late 1790's. It was a throwback to the medieval use of light and shadow to trick and deceive audiences. The chief exponent of these terrifying shows was a Belgian, who called himself Robertson and held his 'seances' in an abandoned Capuchin chapel in Paris.

Here his shadows and ghosts came to life amongst the mortal remains of the monks which adorned the walls of the chapel. By the novel means of moving the lantern back and forth behind the semi-transparent screen, Robertson's ghosts would seem to grow and then disappear.

The first half of the nineteenth century saw a progression from the itinerant 'galante show' lanternist, who would for a few pence entertain the children of rich folk or passersby - to the spectacular and very beautiful lantern shows given by Mr. Childe and Mr. Hill in the 1840's at the Royal Regent Street Polytechnic. These shows involved the use of several lanterns and quantities of large hand-painted slides to produce 'dissolving views', multiple effects and illusions of movement. The slides that these men painted are the finest that were ever produced by hand painting. The images produced were often 2000 square feet or more, and the use of the beautiful but highly dangerous hydrogen-oxygen 'limelight' enabled these images to be shown to large audiences. Behind the screen the appropriate music and sound effects were produced. 

The firm of Carpenter and Westley were the first to commercially produce lanterns and slides in Great Britain from about 1826 onwards. They employed some of the top miniature painters of the day who in their turn 

created some of the most exquisite transparencies in the history of the Magic Lantern. 

After 1860 the quality of most of the slides began to deteriorate, engravings and drawings being transferred to glass by photographic means and then coloured by hand. In contrast to the slides the lanterns continued to be improved technically. Bi-unial, tri-unial and even quad-unial lanterns were produced, i.e. lanterns with from two to four projection tubes mounted vertically on the lantern, this was for the multiple projection of dissolving views and mechanical movement slides. 

With the advent of cinema the days of the big lantern shows were numbered. However, the Magic Lantern was still used for the projection of single slides in schools and institutes until very recent times. Photographic and printed slides were still being manufactured in 1940.
 

© Janet Tamblin 1976