« | »

Magic Lantern

The department of Media and Cultural Studies at LJMU has just taken charge of a magic lantern.  Last year, for the delectation of delegates to the International Gothic Association Conference on ‘Monstrous Spectacle’ at the University of Lancaster, the programme included an evening magic lantern show given by Mervyn Heard.  The event demonstrated not only the importance of performance in presenting visual media but the continuity of late eighteenth century phantasmagoria images (the dance of death, imps, Egyptian iconography, the magician and gothic heroines) which reappear in nineteenth century temperance narratives and then early European film.  Kember (2009) argues that the success of the commercial magic lantern show rested on one of two performance rituals: the lecturer who had knowledge of the subject they narrated and the showman who engaged the audience with a discourse of knowingness that made the fantastic permissible.  (See Magic Lantern bibliography). Catalogues of magic lantern slides are vast and although dominated by religious imagery they are connected to the playfulness of all other forms of nineteenth century popular culture.  How did this translate into domestic storytelling, how important is it to understanding the reception of nineteenth century popular fiction and how do you study it?


Our magic lantern appeared on arrival not to work but after an hour’s cleaning and bravery regarding Victorian engineering “it’ll all go back together again if we take it apart”, we restored all 6 lenses and were able to project the departmental slide (a singularity resulting from ultimate failure to secure others in ebay auctions).  The intensity of glass projection immediately focuses attention on expression rather than the narrative legibility of the image.  The academics in the room read the slide as a Dickensian tale of profligacy while the administrative staff (who’d come to see what was taking us so long) challenged us, working harder on the cues of dress, staging and contingency. 


So most of the conferences that I have attended this summer have been to try and make sense of the magic lantern as a form of visual narrative media.  I can connect it to the work of the nineteenth century bestselling writer Marie Corelli via Sieber’s argument concerning the narrative significance of the tableau vivant, in print fiction.  On the stage and as a parlour game the practice refers to “figures posed, silent, and immobile in imitation of well-known works of art or dramatic scenes from history and literature” (Chapman, 1996:24).  In a similar manner to the magic lantern slide. an emphasis is placed on the demonstration of virtuous behaviour (Chapman, 2006:27) and therefore is an improving activity.  However the still image raises controversy because its narrative legibility is open.  In the context of the tableau vivant Chapman argues, subjects chosen included paintings that negotiated instances of violence either perpetrated by or made towards women, that needed to be carefully managed by the performance to remove any element of subversive content and close down the consideration of male violence.  On the stage, tableaux presented at moments of dramatic revelation complicated the meaning of the image rather than anchoring social values.[i]  This is point similar to contested popular vs canonical reading strategies for narrative paintings i.e. The Awakening Conscience (Hunt, 1853).  Reading the popular requires us to consider resistant readings which are often the most pleasurable.

 Finding an archive of magic lantern slides in order to consider how they were interpreted and presented in domestic storytelling is difficult: although they were numerous, they are also extremely fragile.  I visited The Bill Douglas Centre (BDC) at the University of Exeter which holds a public collection of all kinds of items that encompass the history, pre-history and folklore of the cinema largely acquired by Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell.  The Magic Lantern Society has an extensive collection of the readings which accompanied slide sets that could be given or adapted by the presenter according to their engagement or skill.  The BDC has a home made book of readings, which I imagine was the work of a scout master; these alternate between naval and military history and adventure stories such as Ali Baba and Robin Hood.  These are annotated to emphasise pronunciation, rearrangement and inclusion of other slides and the connection with non-fiction lectures.  But it was not until I visited real as opposed to virtual auctions, and took possession of personal collections as they came out of house clearances, that I came to understand how sets and slides could be interlaced to respond to prevailing narrative archetypes and just how exciting ‘Perils and Adventures in Central Africa’ might have been to its audience.

Nickianne Moody

I sent a bullet flying after him.

[i] A discussion presented by Sos Eltis at ‘The “Sister Arts” in the Popular Theatre c. 1820-1910 conference 2010 at the University of Birmingham

This entry was posted on Tuesday, August 17th, 2010 at 2:02 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Magic Lantern”

  1. Deborah Mason says:

    Fabulous to see you getting to grips with the magic lantern, we all had to learn to do that BFI job in Sheffield. I think the BFI may still have quite a collection of slides that they might even lend out to someone doing a presentation like this. Perhaps worth a phone call?

  2. Convenor says:

    How wonderful, I think we could do with some training. Our lantern is still a little bit temperamental, but I managed to buy 100 slides in North Devon and we are going to try them out next week. Any other suggestions about where collection of slides might be would be much appreciated.

  3. Convenor says:

    Hi Claire,
    That sounds like an interesting collection. I was talking to someone the other day who had inherited one which had lots of colourful slides for dividing a talk into chapters and openings and finales. If you want to contact us directly the email is
    Best wishes,


Leave a Reply