To make strange things appear on a wall, very pretty

Walgensten's Laterna Magica, drawn by Dechales in 1665, from
Walgensten’s Laterna Magica, drawn by Dechales in 1665, from

Back in July last year I had an idea. I had been interested for many years in eyewitness accounts of people’s experiences of cinema-going. I’d collected a lot of these while researching the early years of cinema in London, treasuring the special quality they had for making history come to life in all its untidy, untheorized, individual complexity. The idea was simply to start publishing these online as a collection, classified in some useful way to aid anyone interested in researching in this field in the future.

I had the idea in the morning, and by the end of the day I had secured a web address,, selected a template, and had started entering the first texts. In September it went live, and has built up to some 240 entries so far. However, I knew right from the start that what I wanted to cover was not just the experience of going to the cinema, but the broader visual experience. What did I mean by that? The inspiration was to do for the visual what the Open University’s Reading Experience Database has done for records of people reading (the RED collects written testimony of people reading, and classifies these in precise detail). But what is the visual experience?

In early cinema studies it has long been understood that the supposed ‘invention’ of cinema did not occur at some magic moment around 1895 but was in fact part of a continuum of visual experiences and entertainments that was preceded by (and led out of) optical toys, panoramas, phantasmagoria, magic lanterns and other such optical inventions of the nineteenth century and before, and which in turn led to television and other forms of motion picture projection. Images on film projected intermittently in rapid succession onto a screen to create the illusion of motion were not a self-contained historical phenomenon, even if cinema differently greatly from that which came before it through his huge social and economic impact.

So the broader visual experience could be defined as though optical toys and other visual entertainments that preceded, and in some cases then co-existed with cinema, with television as the natural successor technology, which now we see being followed, or absorbed by the new media of multi-platform visual devices. It some academic circles it has been called screen studies, though it is not a term that has caught on greatly. But what about theatregoing as a form of visual experience? What about art galleries, photography exhibitions, fairground entertainments, posters, cartoons, cave paintings, hieroglyphics, stained glass? What are the boundaries?

Maybe the answer lies back in 1666. On August 19th that year – just a couple of weeks before the Great Fire of London – Samuel Pepys visited a manufacturer of optical instruments and recorded this in his diary:

He did also bring a lanthorne with pictures in glasse, to make strange things appear on a wall, very pretty.

I think that is as good a definition of the visual experience as I have been looking for – something that makes strange things appear on the wall, which are on the whole very pretty. It’s not just the projection – it’s the strangeness; that something which is of this world yet out of it at the same time, and which delights the eye. Theatre shows and art exhibitions and their kind belong to other histories, even if there are overlaps. One could argue that television lies outside the history of projection on a wall, but here the screen is more important than the box, and TV’s familiar strangeness links its profoundly to the cinema, to the magic lantern, and through to the tablets, PCs and smartphones of today. Here though the history gets confused, perhaps because it is not yet properly history and we compare it with what went before, when the perspective that we lack is that which can only be provided by the future.

Samuel Pepys’ account of a lanthorn is the first record in English of a magic lantern, the projecting lantern with lens that threw pictures (from slides) on a wall that is generally understood to have been invented by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1659 (various earlier, speculative claims for the invention exist, but have been largely discredited). It is a good starting point for the history of a particular history of the visual experience, and I will start building on it.

Slide from the Bamforth series Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad (GB 1910)
Slide from the Bamforth series Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad (GB 1910)

I have to say, though, that I have never been that much of an enthusiast for the magic lantern. There are people who are deeply engrossed in the lantern and its history, people for whom the history of projection more or less comes to an end in 1895. They thrills to the technology, and put particular value on recreating magic lantern shows, with their brightly coloured slides, the dissolves, the lighting effects, the accompanying patter and the tearful sentiment (or broad comedy) of another age. The images, and their performance, seldom move me, alas. The images, for all their eye-catching colour, are poor art, of a kind one would scarcely consider were they in a picture frame rather than on a slide. But the art of the image is not the point. What these modern magic lanternists want to recreate is the emotion – the feel of wonder audiences had at the time, who could be transported by a few pictures and a story. They want to find the secret of the magic lantern’s enchantment.

And that is what Picturegoing is about: finding that audience, where they speak as individuals about what moved them so, when strange things appeared on the wall, very pretty. So I shall start adding magic lantern testimony alongside cinema testimony, and the bigger picture will begin to emerge.


  • LUCERNA is an extensive and scholarly database of magic lantern history (though searches take ages…)
  • The Magic Lantern Society offers a good general guide to lantern history, with plenty of links to other resources
  • The full Samuel Pepys diary is available online, with a post per diary entry, and extensive hyperlinks and background information


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4 thoughts on “To make strange things appear on a wall, very pretty

  1. It’s too often forgotten that the painted and coloured images of the lantern screen are only one aspect of the lantern slide. Lantern images in general can only be considered ‘poor art’ if we dismiss all Victorian photography as ‘poor art’, since just about anything that was photographed was also shown on the screen. And of course much of it – including the news lecture slides of distant battles and triumphs of the Empire (now those should interest you), science slides, and a good deal more – laid no claim to be art at all. But I’m pleased that you’ve included the magic lantern testimony in your project, and look forward to future posts.

  2. You are quite right, of course – Victorian lantern images are far more various that the painted scenes I was thinking of, and I’m not even sure what I mean by ‘poor art’, which is a bit snobbish and anyway the level of art is not important. What I was trying to say was that the quality lay in the performance, and that the interest magic lantern enthusiasts show today seems to lie in empathy for the audience (in contrast to early cinema studies, for example, where audience empathy is too often sidelined).

    As for news slides, I am greatly interested in them, and hope to build on the research suggested here:

    I look forward to learning more about the magic lantern as I start to work my way through the eyewitness testimony – and to be held up to account where necessary!

  3. I am surely not original in seeing cinema (lit by gas flame or electric spark) as the Muse of Fire presaged in the Prologue to HENRY V, viz.

    Enter Chorus
    Chorus O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
    The brightest heaven of invention,
    A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
    And monarchs to behold the swelling scene! 5
    Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
    Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
    Leash’d in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
    Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
    The flat unraised spirits that have dared 10
    On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
    So great an object: can this cockpit hold
    The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
    Within this wooden O the very casques
    That did affright the air at Agincourt? 15
    O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
    Attest in little place a million;
    And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
    On your imaginary forces work.
    Suppose within the girdle of these walls 20
    Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
    Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
    The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
    Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
    Into a thousand parts divide on man, 25
    And make imaginary puissance;
    Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
    Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
    For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
    Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times, 30
    Turning the accomplishment of many years
    Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
    Admit me Chorus to this history;
    Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
    Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. 35

  4. I think you may be original; I don’t recall having come across discussion of the ‘muse of fire’ invocation as a metaphor for cinema (or proto-cinema), certainly not in relation to the specifics of generating an image. It makes the whole of the Prologue’s speech read like the accompanying lecture to a magic lantern show.

    I think the next book someone writes on Shakespeare and film now has its title.

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