On 21 February 1996, the former Regent Polytechnic Theatre at the University of Westminster hosted a film show. It recreated the first exhibition of projected films for a paying audience in the UK, at the same venue, 100 years before. It was entirely appropriate that the projectionist on that centenary day, operating a Lumière Cinématographe, was Stephen Herbert. Stephen was not only head of the technical department at the BFI South Bank, but a film historian of international renown, whose great passion was for the earliest visual media technologies. Equally he was someone who loved to demonstrate such technologies, creating understanding through practice. He was someone entirely at home in both 1995 and 1895.
Stephen was born in south London in 1951. Aged only seventeen he gained his first job working for the Public Record Office in paper conservation before becoming a cinema projectionist at the Imperial, Clapham Junction. In the days when films were on celluloid, came in cans, and needed threading, rewinding and constant repair, Stephen became exceptionally proficient in what is now almost a lost art. After ventures at other cinemas, including London’s Windmill Cinema (formerly the renowned Windmill revue theatre), Stephen joined the National Film Theatre (NFT, now BFI Southbank) as a projectionist while still a teenager.
He left projection for education, joining Wandsworth Technical College in 1973, then becoming Film Production Technical Supervisor at Goldsmiths College for ten years (1979-89). He was tempted back to the NFT, appointed as Deputy of Head of Technical Services, before being given the lead position when Charles Beddow, the NFT’s first such Head, retired, knowing that in Stephen he was leaving things in the best of hands. Stephen was now overseeing projection at the National Film Theatre and the London Film Festival. He thus became responsible for projection at one of the world’s leading cinematheques, to a dedicated cinephile audience that expected the best from the NFT, and found it.
Stephen also managed technical operations at the BFI’s Museum of the Moving Image, which opened in London to great acclaim in 1988 and whose closure in 1999 was source of personal bitterness. However this coincided with a remarkable second phase of his career as a publisher, author, consultant and academic. He and his partner Mo Heard moved to Hastings, where their home became an Aladdin’s Cave of magic lanterns, flick books, posters, vintage toys and evocative memorabilia.
They set up The Projection Box, which published books on silent films and early optical media, including Jenny Hammerton’s For Ladies Only: Eve’s Film Review, Stephen Bottomore’s The Titanic and Silent Cinema, Vanessa Toulmin’s Randall Williams: King of Showmen, Barry Anthony’s The Kinora: Motion Pictures for the Home 1896-1914, the ‘lost’ memoirs of Charles Urban, A Yank in Britain, reprints of early film catalogue, magic lantern patents and much more. These were essential texts for the specialist that were unlikely to have seen the day without Stephen and Mo’s insight and initiative.
However, the greatest Projection Box publications were the two written by Stephen himself. First of these, from 1997, was a biography of the ingenious Edwardian optical experimenter Theodore Brown, Stephen’s hero and alter ego. This beautifully designed work include sets of 3-D glasses to enable the read to view some of the images within. No other publisher would have been brave enough, or imaginative enough, to have produced such an elegant and imaginative work as Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures.
The following year came a brilliant study of inventor and political theorist Wordsworth Donisthorpe, Industry Liberty and a Vision. Donisthorpe was a mere footnote in specialist film histories, an unknown inventor who had shot ten frames of ‘film’ in 1890 showing Trafalgar Square. From a footnote Stephen uncovered an extraordinary personal history involving anarcho-libertarian politics, wool combing technology, linguistics and chess, as well as pioneering work in motion picture technology. It was a model illustration of how invention is seldom abstract but rather a formation of its time and particular purpose – in Donisthorpe’s case, a call for radical change.
Stephen also edited several significant visual media reference guides. He served as research officer for the Magic Lantern Society for a number of years, and co-edited three books for the MLS: Magic Images: The Art of Hand-Painted & Photographic Lantern Slides (1990), Servants of Light: The Book of the Lantern (1997) and in particular The Encyclopedia of the Magic Lantern (2001), co-edited with Richard Crangle and David Robinson. He also edited three sets of archival documents aimed at research students for Routledge: A History of Pre-Cinema, A History Early Film and A History of Early Television, useful works that one now sees regularly cited in academic texts.
The most high-profile editing work that he undertook was Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema, a 1996 biographical guide to the pioneers of cinema, for which I was the co-editor. This work was part of the British Film Institute’s contribution to the centenary of cinema and was very much designed to counter the nationalism and prejudice that had tended to feature in many accounts of the ‘invention’ of motion pictures. For us it was a collaborative endeavour, embracing not just inventors and filmmakers, but (as we wrote at the time): “Scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, sportsmen, artists, politicians, dancers, photographers, reporters, showmen, propagandists and crooks.”
In 2004, the book having gone out of print, we converted it into a website. We added extra profiles (over 300 names in total), background texts and illustrations. It made quite an impact in its way – certainly a lot of it got borrowed in creating Wikipedia entries – and it continues to get cited, though we stopped adding anything new to it in 2020. That book and website did as well as they was very much down to Stephen’s spirit of invention, quite as much as his great historical knowledge.
He built several websites of his own, starting with MOMI, an unofficial recreation of the Museum of the Moving Image; a guide to Victorian photographer Eadweard Muybridge, The Compleat Muybridge; The Race to Cinema, an innovative project with like-minded experts to rebuild some of the earliest motion picture cameras; The Wheel of Life, a detailed study and directory of nineteenth-century optical toys; and most recently The Optilogue, investigating historical visual media. The latter was written during lucid moments as Stephen struggled with his final illness. It was composed with a determination to set out that which he knew while he still had time and mind to do so. Even those not aware of the circumstances in which it was composed could not fail to have picked up on the urgency and the excitement of The Optilogue.
He was sought out for his expertise in many fields by academics, museums (including two planned media museums in Dubai and Qatar), programme makers and film producers. His expertise in Muybridge led to a Visiting Research Fellowship at Kingston University, home of the Muybridge archive. He served as a technical consultant on two feature films: Merchant-Ivory’s The Golden Bowl (2000), and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011), ensuring that its marvellous recreation of the studio of French film pioneer Georges Méliès was authentic. He was rightly proud that Scorsese incorporated his suggestion that a Maltese Cross intermittent could be taken from an automaton and incorporated into Méliès’s camera, enabling his film dreams to come to life.
Stephen died on 3 September 2023, aged 71. On 25 January 2024 a tribute event was held at the British Film Institute. A great gathering of friends heard from speakers, myself included, talking about his publications, his research work, his interest in rebuilding early film cameras (including some which had never been built in the first place but for which patent drawings exist), his expertise in all things to do with the magic lantern, and his own film-work. The event concluded with video clips from a series of Zoom interviews taken of Stephen by John Adderley, in which he reminisces about his life – a boy from a south London working class background with few advantages save for the gifts of curiosity and creativity. Self-deprecating and illuminating, the interviews provide compelling testimony. He knew how to tell a story.
There was much else to Stephen. His passions ranged from model aeroplanes to pinball machines, from book binding to artificial intelligence, from flipbooks to reggae, from Popeye to Samuel Johnson. The connecting theme was animation – as in film, as in liveliness, as in bringing things back to life. As I concluded in an obituary for Stephen in The Guardian, “he did what any projectionist does when they throw light on to a cinema screen: he made things come alive again.”
Stephen was a good friend to many and I was lucky to be one of them. I have so many fond memories of our many projects, from a cheap but popular show celebrating Wilson, Keppel and Betty of sand dance fame (Stephen was hugely proud of the wooden camel he constructed) to flying model aeroplanes over the heads of the audience in NFT1 and at the Pordenone silent film festival for our show ‘Taking to the Air’. We had such fun. Thank you Stephen, for all that you did, and for all that you have left to us.
- This blog post has been adapted out of a short obituary I wrote for The Guardian‘s Other Lives. There are a few repeated phrases
- There is a new website which provides an overview of Stephen’s career and links to his various publications and websites, https://stephen-herbert.co.uk
- There is an also a Wikipedia page for Stephen that provides basic information with links
- Much work has been going on to ensure that Stephen’s legacy is preserved and made accessible. Not all can be made public as yet, but I’ll add notes to this post when that is possible.