The Pilgrim’s Progress: the Cinémathèque française acquires a collection of 33 magic lantern plates

The Cinémathèque française has one of the finest collections of magic lantern plates in the world: some 18,000 pieces kept by the Conservatory of Film Techniques, many of which have been digitised and presented on the Website.
Quite recently, there was an opportunity to acquire an exceptional set of 33 glass plates, hand-painted in the mid-19th century by the English painter Thomas Clare. This large-scale series, boasting exceptional workmanship, enriches our collection of plates from the Royal Polytechnic, a Mecca for projections in England during the reign of Queen Victoria.


Illustration N°1 - Bunyan Portrait

This series of 33 painted glasses, entitled The Pilgrim’s Progress, was inspired by John Bunyan's allegorical novel The Pilgrim's Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come, published in 1678. This great classic of English literature, translated the world over, was written in 1675 when Bunyan was in prison for having organised religious services unauthorised by the Anglican Church. Plate no. 3 of our series (see illustration no. 1) shows Bunyan in his cell precisely, meditating over his manuscript in the light from a basement window. The novel was brought to the screen for the first time in 1912; other versions would follow, including one by Ken Anderson in 1977.

The Pilgrim’s Progress relates the adventures of Christian, an ordinary man trying to get to the 'Celestial City' on Mount Zion (Heaven), from the 'City of Destruction' (the world in which he lives). During his journey, he is faced with all sorts of temptations and visits Vanity Fair, the Doubting Castle, the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death…


Illustration n°2 - Valley of Humiliation
Illustration n°3 - Effect pour Valley of Humiliation
Illustration n°4 - Hill Difficulty
Illustration n°5 - Curtain

This novel was so popular that it was adapted several times by magic lantern painters, and the Cinémathèque owns another series of the same title, but less refined and unsigned, consisting of 12 hand-painted plates. All the plates of the series newly acquired by La Cinémathèque française are signed very discreetly with Clare's initials on the painting. Clare began his career as a schoolteacher but early on became fascinated by the 'magic lantern' and painting on glass plates. His reputation attracted the attention of one of the artists of the Royal Polytechnic Institution, Edmund Wilkie (of whom the Cinémathèque also has a magnificent set devoted to Robinson Crusoe), who entrusted him with executing plates for the famous London venue. We thus have Clare to thank for splendid plates illustrating The Holy Land (after David Roberts), Uncle Tom's Cabin and journeys in Europe (some of those plates are now in English museums). He worked for the Royal Polytechnic with the greatest European painters of plates (in particular, Perrin, Frey and Smith) and seems to have died prematurely, the result of poisoning due to the paint he used for many years.

The series acquired by La Cinémathèque française is made up of 33 wood-framed plates. The frames measure 14.5 x 18 cm (with the exception of an animated plate measuring 14.5 x 24.5 cm). The frames must originally have been larger but were cut down long ago to adapt each plate to the plate-slider of a standard lantern; however, with round images measuring 10.5 cm in diameter, the format of each plate largely surpassed the size of traditional sliders on projection lanterns at the end of the 19th century. It was therefore necessary to use a special, large-sized lantern to project these views. As this series was planned to have superimpositions and cross fades, this lantern had to include at least two light sources and two lenses, including a 'bi-unial' one.

Let us take an example of superimpositions: Christian is in the Valley of Humiliation (illustration no. 2); he is standing on guard and sees a particularly threatening devil appear (illustration no. 3) whom he ends up repulsing. The mobile plate, which allows for the superimposition of the devil, gives him two positions: first armed with a spear and then in a fallback position.

As concerns the quality of the painting, one plate illustrates this marvellously, not only on the technical level but also from the stylistic and poetic points of view: the exhausted voyager falls asleep in a forest (illustration no. 4). One must examine the painting closely – it is a masterpiece of miniaturisation that must have been highly appreciated in projection.

The series (which begins with the classic curtain, as at the theatre; see illustration no. 5) is accompanied by a small handwritten booklet listing the plates and containing a few quotations from Bunyan's book. This booklet served the 'lanternist' who manipulated the plates and commented on each view; his name was A. Weightman. Another archive piece indicates that this series was rediscovered in the 1910s by a London antiques dealer. Finally, the 33 plates are preserved in their original wooden box, the interior lined with red felt.

It is extremely difficult nowadays to find plates by great magic lantern painters and more particularly those of the Royal Polytechnic. This acquisition, which contains marvels in terms of painting and special effects by superimpositions, thus further reinforces the Royal Polytechnic collection at La Cinémathèque française, which already included more than 80 magnificent examples, thanks to Will Day.

 Le Temple de la projection : la Royal Polytechnic


The hand-painted glass plates of the Royal Polytechnic Institution in London constitute a technical and artistic revolution in the very long history of light projections. Never, since the magic lantern of astronomer Christiaan Huygens escaped from the old laboratory of The Hague to travel the world, had such refined, perfect light paintings been executed. And after the closing of the Royal Polytechnic in 1882, never again would one find such quality of glass-painting on the screens, such chromatic variations or such successful optical effects.

The Royal Polytechnic Institution, built at 309 Regent Street in London (and thus quite close to Philip Carpenter's shop), was founded in April 1838 by George Cayley (1773-1857) and his brother Edward, the philanthropist W. N. Nurse and Charles Payne[1]. Cayley took inspiration from the Adelaide Gallery, which was already offering lantern projections in London but, in his opinion, those were not spectacular enough. The Royal Polytechnic, supported by the royal family, opened its doors on 6 August 1838 and proposed very inexpensive teaching for all with regular showings of light projections, illustrated lectures, a gigantic science exhibition room containing thousands of pieces and machines in action. The public – the poor, workers, the middle class and English nobles –, avid to know all the latest novelties regarding science, geographical discoveries and advances in optics and projection, would come to the Institution en masse to immerse itself totally in the 'spectacle of Nature'.

The Exhibition Hall of the
Royal Polytechnic Institution (1850)

The gigantic hall of the Polytechnic quickly became one of London's favourite venues, with its galleries full of strange objects, its reproductions of optician's and ivory sculptor's workshops, its central canal where boats floated, its large diving bell allowing five people to plunge into the waters of a large pool like a submarine (the Prince of Wales had a go, in 1876) for the price of one shilling. Visiting the Institution's vast hall of curiosities – some 1,500 items on exhibit in 1841[2] – and attending, dumbfounded, the magic lantern projections of animated images or fixed views, the public had the illusion of fully participating in the great vogue of scientific popularisation and geographical exploration affecting, at the time, the Victorian era and the Second Empire in France. The English worker or bourgeois, who rarely left his smoky London, could travel and dream, thanks to the Royal Polytechnic's showcases or before the projections, in the far-off colonies and countries that they would never visit, from the Pole to the Equator.

The Royal Polytechnic's cabinet of curiosities was a real scientific and exotic bric-a-brac, containing all sorts of fascinating objects,: stroboscopic discs in rotation, optical games, electric systems as well as an opium pipe from Malaysia, a pair of moccasins from the Mohican tribe, tools from Madagascar, daggers from India, an idol from Santo Domingo, a splendid collection of gold and diamonds from Australia, and all the latest industrial inventions: one could see in full action the Reynell & Weight printing machine, the Cox lithography press, Appel's anastatic or resurrectional press, Woolnough's machine for marbling paper, Armstrong's steam engine, James Walker's 'modern metempsychosis', etc. Then there were the two projection rooms, one huge, the other smaller, inviting the public to prolong their journey round the world and sciences. A watercolour by Henry Hodge, painted in 1882, depicts the large theatre where the projections took place: we see the cabin, with holes drilled in the wall to let the beams of light through, an arrangement that still exists in all film theatres…

The projections took place as of the building's opening, thanks in particular to Childe and his 'dissolving views', but the most ambitious period corresponded to the arrival of a new director, John Henry Pepper (1821-1900), in 1854. An excellent populariser, fascinated by optics, Pepper would hire the best painters and lanternists; he would also introduce the trick effect of 'living spectres' on the stage of the large theatre. With Pepper, everything was done to ensure the show's being as nearly perfect as possible. One of the screens of the Royal Polytechnic measured approximately 8 metres in height. Musicians accompanied the performances, and sound effects men, hidden behind the screen, were in charge of giving the images a highly particular sound scope (thunder, rain, wind, canon roar, animal noises). In addition, the projections were the province of four, sometimes six, enormous machines, mounted in banks for the 'dissolving views'. Whether fixed or animated, these thus followed one another in perfect cadence and symbiosis. The large-scale images were projected by these powerful lanterns, which were lit by sticks of lime brought to incandescence thanks to flames of oxyhydrogen gas then later by electric arc lights.

At the Royal Polytechnic, a veritable experimental laboratory, new techniques were often previewed, representing the modern avant-garde in science, art and optics: Talbot's lecture on photography in 1841; the projections of kaleidoscopic views (with Pritchard's 'Kaleidograph' or Darker's 'kaleidoscope'); projections of miniscule living creatures with an oxyhydrogen microscope; Professor Gardner's lectures on chemistry, fire and smoke; the Lumière Cinématographe in 1896. Astronomy classes – such as those given by the lanternist-professor J. L. King on the passage of Venus – were the occasion for projecting extraordinary mechanised views. The same J. L. King gave a memorable session in 1875: entitled 'Scopes, old and new', reviewing the situation on all the novelties in light projection: 'The opaque microscope; the oxyhydrogen microscope; the 'astrometroscope'; the 'phenakistiscope'; the stroboscope; the kaleidoscope; the 'kaleidographoscope'; C. Pilkington's 'kukloscope'; Darker's oxyhydrogen ' polariscope' and its marvellous effects[3]

Wheel of Life
Great Britain - Second half
of the 19th century

The phenakistiscope or 'Wheel of Life' plate, derived from Plateau and Stampfer's stroboscopic discs, permits recreating the illusion of life. On a glass disc are depicted the different phases of a movement, and superimposed on it is a second disc in metal, pierced with one or several openings and which turns in the opposite direction with the help of pulleys and strings. On the screen, the phenakistiscope disc appears in its entirety, with a gyration of energetically animated images. The Wheels of Life greatly amused the audience of the Royal Polytechnic, and the lecturer of the time took advantage of this to explain what was called in the 19th century, with Plateau, the phenomenon of 'retinal persistence', which was going to provide the technical bases of the cinematography to come. Other derivatives, the 'anorthoscope' plate, which, with a shutter, straightens out the anamorphoses (based on another invention by Joseph Plateau), and the 'choreutoscope', patented in 1869 in the United States by O. B. Brown, and then taken up by K. Beale of Greenwich: a strip of images representing the different phases of a movement passes in a mounting frame, and each image is shuttered by a mobile screen. Thanks to the choreutoscope, the popular image of a dancing skeleton – still Holbein and Huygens – was projected, as well as little playlets full of hustle and bustle: a dentist extracts the teeth of his client, a clown performs acrobatics, etc. Two choreutoscopes made by the optician Baker, of Holborn, were presented to the Royal Polytechnic en 1875.

Another appreciated plate was Newton's disc, used for the demonstration of spectral colours and the reconstitution of white light by the rotation of a disc whose centre and edges are black, but with intermediate spaces painted with red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet lines, so as to imitate, circularly, five successive spectra by playing on the nature of the hues and their relative range. By giving this disc a rapid motion, one perceives almost simultaneously the impression of the seven colours of the spectrum, and the disc appears white. The 'Benham Teintoscope' plate shows only parallel black lines divided into sectors on a white disc. In turning, the lines appear yellow, red, blue or green, depending on their position given by the rotation.

The 'eidotrope', invented by Charles Wheatstone in 1866, is also a plate of very modern abstraction, composed of two perforated metal discs moved in the opposite direction by a movement à crémaillère. Rotating them slowly, one obtains moving geometric figures, hexagonal or octagonal. By turning them quickly, one obtains quite varied sparkling and shimmering effects. The 'cycloidotrope', or the 'invisible drawing master' allows for tracing very fine rosettes on a blackened glass disc using a pantographic stylus activated by a crank. This complex apparatus is difficult to use but creates magnificent effects.

 Great Britain - Second half
of the 19th century

The most popular animated plate was surely the 'chromatrope', invented by Henry Childe in the 1830s, with a large quantity of them being manufactured in the 19th century (Carpenter & Westley made remarkable ones under the name 'Artificial Fireworks'). The effects are generally obtained by two painted discs representing rosettes that turn anticlockwise, using racks and a cog or pinion. The forms of the chromatrope were varied endlessly: dizzying rosettes absorbing the spectator into the very heart of the image, as in an unending Vertigo; geometric designs, multicoloured rays mixing straight lines and curves. The classic form is the genre called 'Dahlia' in France. Turning the crank in one direction, the centre of the rosette seems to detach itself and rush to the edges to leave the mounting; turning the crank in the opposite direction makes the rosette go back into itself.

One of the chromatropes in the collection of La Cinémathèque française bears a handwritten inscription on the wood frame: 'Painted by Hill, artist to the Royal Polytechnic'. At a young age, the Londoner W. R. Hill (1823-1901) entered into apprenticeship with the painter and lanternist Henry Childe, considered the official inventor of the chromatrope and 'dissolving views'. Hill and Childe worked together at the Royal Polytechnic until Hill struck out on his own in 1867 and painted alone for John Henry Pepper, director of the Royal Polytechnic, plates depicting a voyage on the Rhine. Hill was certainly the most talented painter on glass of his time[4], the author of, for example, the mechanised plate Angels on the Fields of Bethlehem, in which seven angels beat their wings at different moments and speeds. Thanks to him and to the Royal Polytechnic, the Victorian spectator, immersed in all these natural and supernatural optical illusions, doubtless experienced great delight in the double feeling of realism and illusion. Moreover, that is what accounts for the strangeness of these images, about which it can be said that, in fact, they have no stability between the real and the imaginary.

The lanternist iconography proposed by the Royal Polytechnic is closely linked to the powerful scientific popularisation trend in Europe at the time. The management of the Royal Polytechnic was one of the first to proclaim that 'the education of the eye is, incontestably, the most important means for elementary instruction'. The lantern was thus going to play a capital role in this pedagogical current that reached its apogee at the very end of the 19th century with diverse lay and Catholic organisations. The Royal Polytechnic in London and Abbé Moigno in Paris were in the forefront of this combat.

Hunting Buffaloes
William Robert Hill
To put the iconography proposed by the Royal Polytechnic into the context of the period, we must also insist on the great 19th-century craze for exoticism, a vogue that, with different nuances, already existed in the 18th century. In England, travelogues had tremendous success with the publications of Mackenzie, Salt, Livingstone, et al., and the great vogue of Egyptomania and orientalism was still running strong. A whole generation discovered Caspar David Friedrich, Delacroix, David Roberts and William Turner. Every week, a revue like The Illustrated London News published engravings representing far-off lands. Photography, which had barely come out of limbo, travelled the world over, capturing all the details. Makers of stereoscopes, such as Gaudin and Ferrier in Paris or the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company, offered thousands of photographic views of foreign countries in relief. The Romantic philosophy of departure, adventure, exotic colour, and the refusal to adopt middle-class values, was going to give birth to a new kind of literature and new vagabonds, from George Borrow to Arthur Rimbaud. The parallels between the plates of the Royal Polytechnic and the poetry of Gray, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley seem obvious: an intense, common desire to share the emotions aroused by Nature, the wish to celebrate free freedom, to borrow Rimbaud's expression ('liberté libre'). The image of Hill depicting an Indian hunting bison (Hunting Buffaloes), modelled after Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio by the painter-traveller George Catlin, fully symbolises this heady (and illusory) freedom.

The plates of the Royal Polytechnic are still connected to English painting of the 18th and 19th centuries and, in particular, the great speciality of the English: landscape. Some of Hill's plates can bring to mind the scenes of Suffolk such as we see in Gainsborough's watercolours between 1750 and 1755. With the appearance of the rainbow in 'dissolving views', they also evoke John Constable, for example Landscape and Double Rainbow, painted in 1812. Towards the beginning of the 19th century, one witnessed in England the emergence of a national school of landscape artists who carried watercolour to perfection, a medium little appreciated heretofore. Watercolour technique has little in common with painting on glass, but this landscape school favoured exotic views and no longer just topographical ones, the visual splendours of Egypt, Greece, Palestine, Italy, subjects regularly treated by the English magic lantern beginning in the 1830s. The Royal Polytechnic views still keep the characters of the English and, more broadly, European, Romantic movement, seeming to come straight from the lantern projections of the painter Nolten, described by Eduard Mörike in 1832: 'For the moment, the magic lantern projected only a bright round gleam on the ceiling. […] After general silence fell, a symphony, as a prelude guide, was played on the piano behind the curtain by a member of the society, whom Larkens accompanied on the cello. On the final chords, there appeared, fairly large, on the largest, entirely bare wall of the hall, the silhouette of a city and a most exotic castle under moonlight, pounded by the sea, with three persons sitting in the foreground to the left.[5]

Niagara Falls
William Robert Hill
The painter Hill, author of the series of large plates (28 x 28 cm, framed in deal) on voyages and natural phenomena in the collections of La Cinémathèque française, plays with the colours of the sky, clouds, the night, snow, and natural apparitions, in a thoroughly masterful way, creating a marvellous osmosis between the colours and light. The Royal Polytechnic painters seemed to have been particularly attached to Goethe's treatise on colours and the writings of poet Richard Knight (1794), according to whom it was necessary to concentrate on 'colour, light and shadows, all those harmonious, magical combinations that produce richness and splendour and make for the charm and essence of art'. The painters of the Royal Polytechnic also seemed to adhere to the theories of Edmund Burke, taken up by the English landscape painters. In his 1756 book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke explains that what is pleasing, attractive and gentle is deemed beautiful, whereas that which provokes fright is called sublime. For the English landscape artists, the sublime consisted most often of depicting natural phenomena, for example, the monumental Niagara Falls (Hill's Niagara Falls plate), in which a group of four people provide the human scale to a fantastic spectacle of Nature. Note the incredible work on the sky, veering from blue to violet, and also the bare tree that recalls certain motifs of Gainsborough. The spectacle offered by Niagara Falls seems to have particularly fascinated Europeans in the 19th century. The Times published an engraving of it in 1857, commenting on it in terms that must be quite close to those spoken by the lecturer of the London institution: 'Niagara drains a surface area of 150,000 square miles, from the northern continent through the reservoirs of the upper lakes. And such lakes! Veritable inland seas in which England, Scotland and Wales would be submerged, leaving only a few mountaintops to be seen. [Here one imagines the thrill that must have run through the English audience!] It is only by degrees that one appreciates the work of this gigantic power.' Another obvious example of a sublime landscape for Burke: Mount Vesuvius in Eruption, also illustrated by Hill in spectacular fashion with smoke effects in superimposition. We observe magnificent work on the sky, the reflections on the water, and the irregular foreground, in the style of Salvator Rosa, made up of wild vegetation and mountains.

The Fox in the Pack
William Robert Hill

Thus it can be said that several currents of the English school run through the plates of the Royal Polytechnic. On certain plates with a peaceful subject, we observe the influence of Claude Lorrain, described by Turner, i.e., the calm, serene landscapes, 'pure as the Italian air'. On the others, and in majority, one finds the picturesque of which Gainsborough was fond and which William Gilpin defined in 1792 by as follows: 'A disposition of the mind, an aesthetic attitude involving Man in a direct, active relation with the natural landscape that he crosses in his travels'. Not to forget the strong influence of the theory of the sublime advocated by Burke. This Romantic pictorial dramatisation is evident in the Royal Polytechnic plates, sometimes fairly close in spirit to Caspar David Friedrich, like this boat threatened by a stormy sea and blocks of ice (The Fox in the Pack, by Hill). The close relations between the Royal Polytechnic and the leading English landscape painters of the time are not pure hypotheses: they took concrete form on several occasions, since the drawings of William Turner on the banks of the Loire and the lithographs of David Roberts from his journey to the Holy Land were adapted on plates and projected at the Royal Polytechnic (and later taken up by Carpenter and Westley).

Quite obviously, in the course of its long history, the Royal Polytechnic broached a multitude of varied subjects. Numerous tales and short stories by Dickens were adapted on glass plates: a few scenes from A Christmas Carol survive at the Cinémathèque (plates signed by Hill and dated 1857). The Tower of London by William Harrison Ainsworth is presented by the painter Finden, after engravings by the famous George Cruikshank. Together, Fid Page and Charles Gogin realised The Wonderful Lamp: Aladdin[6] in 1868. Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves was projected by Seymour Smith in 1875, followed two years later by Hyldemoer, after Hans Christian Andersen, painted by Hill; Clare and Perrin painted Uncle Tom's Cabin. Amongst other subjects treated, let us mention Rip van Winkle by Cadman and Hill, Robinson Crusoe (painted by C. Smith, Finden, Childe, Hill, Winzar and Staunton), Cinderella (Childe, Hill and Knott), The Beauty and the Beast, Robin Hood, Sleeping Beauty (Fid Page and Hill), Alice in Wonderland (Hill), The Siege of Troy, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Green and Newton), Mephistopheles (Hill and Green) and even Weber's Der Freischütz, a subject as phantasmagorical as they come, treated by George Hine, Childe and Hill. The 'dissolving view' plates of Faust, painted par Hill, must have been equally captivating. The poem 'Lady of the Lake', after Sir Walter Scott, painted in 1866 by Childe, Hill, Finden and Miss Stanton, was accompanied by an orchestra and professional singers[7]. There even exists a plate illustrating the famous hall of the Royal Polytechnic.

However, scientific, geographical and current events images still had priority. Thus, the expedition to the Arctic Ocean organised by Doctor John Rae to search for Sir John Franklin, a famous English explorer who had disappeared along the Baffin coasts on 26 July 1845, is related in a series of plates painted by Charles W. Collins (in the collections of the Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Turin). Even a subject like Don Quixote, adapted by Porter in 21 images, of which four examples have made their way to La Cinémathèque française, is an excellent occasion for evoking a picturesque foreign country, as attests a plate illustrating a scene from the Cervantes novel: Sancho Panza receiving from hoaxers the keys to the city that he must run. The English institution projected numerous views of astronomy, physics and natural science, the images of the great European industrial expositions, plates illustrating the theories of Darwin, paintings tracing the history of the Polish insurrection, the Abyssinian War, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Russo-Turkish War, and thousands of plates on foreign countries: Egypt and the Suez Canal, Jerusalem (after David Roberts), the Prince of Wales's trip to India, Australia, Afghanistan, Russia, Italy, Paris, the North Pole, China, the United States, etc.

The Royal Polytechnic's plate painters

A few words on the technique of painting on glass used by the painters. Let us first specify that each artist of the Royal Polytechnic had his own technique, his own jealously guarded secrets, which have often not been rediscovered since. In the course of its long activity, the Royal Polytechnic, called upon numerous painters, amongst whom Childe and Hill certainly stand out as some of the most gifted; but let us also mention Fid Page, Edmund Wilkie, Charles Gogin, Isaac Knott, Finden, Green, Newton, Charles Middleton, Perrin, Thomas Clare, E. H. Doubell, C. Smith, Porter, Benjamin Malden, the Frenchman Frey, Charles W. Collins, et al. The quality of painting varies according to the artist, but disappointing plates are rare.

To summarise the technique generally used by these artists, let us first enumerate the accessories necessary before any operation, according to the list drawn up in 1873 by one of the Royal Polytechnic painters, Charles Middleton[8]: glass plates, of course; an easel; a porcelain palette; six very fine marten-hair brushes of diverse sizes; six other goat-hair brushes; one sable brush; an engraving needle; a lithographer's crow's feather; a magnifying glass; a powerful Argand lamp; a pint of the finest turpentine and a purifier; putty-coloured varnish; a bottle of black varnish; India ink; a bottle of Canada balsam; and the following colours in oil, aniline, or oil mixed with varnish, colours available in powder or in tubes, some of which will be blended: three shades of blue, crimson, mauve, orange, purple, several pinks, two shades of yellow, four shades of green, three shades of brown, black, and grey. The colours most used are Antwerp, iron and Prussian blue, cochineal and madder carmine, which give scarlet hues when added to yellow lacquer or gamboge, vegetal or bladder green, burnt sienna, bitumen and black. Violet can also be obtained by applying a layer of carmine on the blue.

Mock Suns
William Robert Hill
To begin work, says Middleton, it is essential to have good light, and if one paints at night, the Argand must be used. First the drawing must be traced on a sheet of paper, then the glass plate placed on this paper, then the motif drawn on paper traced on the glass. This transfer is done with a steel pen, the lithographers' crow feather or else with the very fine sable brush, and India ink mixed with gum water. Once the ink drawing is transferred to the plate, one applies the colours on the other side and strives for a good finish of the image. When this work is completed, one erases the first ink drawing to avoid lines surrounding the objects. These lines do not exist in Nature, proclaim the English painters, and we clearly see that they practically do not appear on the Royal Polytechnic plates, unlike the images marketed by Philip Carpenter, in particular. Take, as an example, the Hill plate representing the midnight sun at the North Pole (Mock Suns): the contour of the mountains of ice or the contour of the sun's rays are created solely by the difference in colours and not by lines. This is one of the major difficulties with this kind of glass painting and one of the great qualities of these images in relation to the immense production of painted-glass plates produced in the 19th century.

Once the glass plate is installed on its easel or stand, lit from behind by the Argand lamp, daylight or a play of mirrors, the painter can now apply his colours, his eye riveted to the magnifying glass. The application of colours is, of course, the most difficult and longest part to accomplish. The making of each Royal Polytechnic plate requires weeks or even months of work. All the authors recommend that the painters begin with the sky. We can see how Hill composed the skies in his paintings with such particular care, featuring variations in and gradations in light, and 'flocks' of clouds that recall Turner's description of canvases by Lorrain. Moreover, we find this same concern, this same strictness in panorama painters of the early 19th century. The Frenchman Pierre Prévost, for example, was a past master when it came to sky painting.

On Hill's images in which the sky, the gradations of light, clouds, jets of steam and different ranges of blue are particularly striking, one distinguishes perfectly the two main techniques used by the Royal Polytechnic painters. In certain parts of the plates, and especially on sky and smoke, the image presents an aspect of dotted clouds. In order to obtain this effect and give more relief to their colours, painters use their finger to spread the paint. This technique can be used especially for large-scale plates; on reduced surfaces, it can produce rather crude effects. But here, the English artists have thoroughly mastered this process. Charles Middleton even recommends modelling the pad of the fingers differently; for example, leaving the index intact, but ripping the skin of the middle finger, strongly filing down the skin of the ring finger with sandpaper, lightly filing the skin of the little finger in order to thereby obtain very pronounced or, to the contrary, very slight effects. Ripping the skin of the fingers 'causes unpleasant sensations,' writes Middleton, but the result is worth the trouble, for it cannot be achieved with brushes.

The second very commonly used technique: painting with an engraving needle. This method allows for obtaining an effect close to engraving and lets the oxyhydrogen light pass subtly, making the image even more luminous. The engraving needle is frequently used to depict ocean waves, for example. Sometimes, it is even entire small surfaces that the painter ornaments with openwork or leaves uncoloured in order to obtain openings of light. Here, the magnifying glass should be very useful to painters for accomplishing this work.

Once finished, the Royal Polytechnic images are sometimes covered with a protective copal varnish but, however necessary for preserving the painting, varnish often makes the image's modelling somewhat unnatural. On Hill's plates, the oil colours seem to have been mixed with varnish from the outset. The painted glass was then protected by a second glass, and the whole framed in wood, this technique ensuring remarkable preservation of the colours. Hill sometimes added a few extra colours on the protective glass that give a very felicitous relief effect. It is also indicated, in certain texts, that the finished plates can be heated gently then, if necessary, coated with copal varnish and dried once again by fire.

Thanks to their quality and beauty, Royal Polytechnic plates have thus become famous the world over. These are 'veritable works of art: one might say most certainly that these paintings on glass, executed by hand, constitute a lost art[9],' asserted Thomas Hepworth, lecturer at the Royal Polytechnic and father of the future film director Cecil Hepworth, in 1889. One of the best-known Royal Polytechnic images is assuredly Hill's Soldier’s Dream, in the Cinémathèque's collection. This Scottish soldier, who has fallen asleep in the moonlight, perfectly sums up the poetic, dreamlike richness displayed by Royal Polytechnic painters. A second plate, used for the superimposition, depicts only the dream: the family, the return home. These two images bring together a few major themes and effects of the great art of light and shadow, the deceiving Art: dream, unlimited perspective, effects of cloudy, blue night, effects of fog, smoke, or flames, dreamlike superimposition, and a very broad chromatic palette. They illustrate Thomas Campbell's poem The Soldier's Dream, written in 1800, and inspired by Goodall's painting of 1850. One imagines the emotion aroused by such a projection at the time of the Crimean War, for example, when thousands of English soldiers had left their homes to fight far away. This view is full of nostalgia and hope. Here is Campbell's poem, which was recited during the projection:


Soldier's Dream
William Robert Hill
Soldier's Dream Effect
William Robert Hill

OUR bugles sang truce, for the night-cloud had lower’d
And the sentinel stars set their watch in the sky;
And thousands had sunk on the ground overpower’d;
The weary to sleep, and the wounded to die.

 When reposing that night on my pallet of straw
By the wolf-scaring faggot that guarded the slain,
At the dead of the night a sweet Vision I saw;
And thrice ere the morning I dreamt it again.

 Methought from the battle-field’s dreadful array
Far, far, I had roam’d on a desolate track:
’Twas Autumn,—and sunshine arose on the way
To the home of my fathers, that welcomed me back.

 I flew to the pleasant fields traversed so oft
In life’s morning march, when my bosom was young;
I heard my own mountain-goats bleating aloft,
And knew the sweet strain that the corn-reapers sung.

 Then pledged we the wine-cup, and fondly I swore
From my home and my weeping friends never to part;
My little ones kiss’d me a thousand times o’er,
And my wife sobb’d aloud in her fulness of heart.

 ‘Stay—stay with us!—rest!—thou art weary and worn!’—
And fain was their war-broken soldier to stay;—
But sorrow return’d with the dawning of morn,
And the voice in my dreaming ear melted away.


A few years later, in 1875 to be precise, Hill was going to carry out his second masterpiece, the largest plate ever painted for a light projection spectacle (97 cm long, 23 cm high). Between the fineness of the brushstrokes, the wealth of colours, and the virtuosity demonstrated in each detail, one can easily imagine the hours spent on this meticulous work... This plate, belonging to La Cinémathèque française, illustrates a scene from Pickwick Papers by Dickens and represents the distance that the hero, Gabriel Grubb, has walked through the snow to reach an old presbytery. The mobile image of Grubb trudging along was projected in superimposition. This image is a sort of travel allegory with all the feelings of the person who has decided to leave: a feeling of fright and the sublime, aroused by a rebellious Nature, a feeling of solitude. Contrary to other Royal Polytechnic plates, this one carries out a sort of lateral tracking shot, like a film shot, and enables the immobile traveller-spectator to take possession of the space and plunge 'to the bottom of the unknown to find something new' (Baudelaire).

Gabriel Grubb - William Robert Hill


But, finally, all this Romanticism, this wind of freedom, extreme strictness and beauty cohabited less and less well with a society undergoing massive ideological and technological changes: the middle class was turning to evermore 'well-behaved' paintings, classical and academic; Londoners were tiring of technical novelties and hoping for miracles of an economic order; the rise of photography harmed the craft of hand-painted magic lantern plates, and the positivists disdained all poetry. The Polytechnic sadly closed its doors in 1878 (it would later reopen in another form) and, in 1882, all its equipment was sold off at auction, including the glass plates: some 4,000 pieces, a veritable magic lantern museum, including elements that have now disappeared or were dispersed all over the world. Thomas Hepworth, present at that memorable sale, remarked on the very high price attained by some paintings. No. 126, 'the astrometroscope, invented by S. Pichler[10] ', aroused a certain excitement: 'The bidding was quite keen to possess the apparatus, and it fetched an extravagant price'. It is true that this plate was wreathed in great mystery at the time: after its projection at the Royal, it was immediately locked up in a safe to prevent its mechanism being examined. On the screen it produced curious effects: lace affecting geometric designs that constantly change shape[11]. Former members of the Institution, such as the painter Edmund Wilkie, succeeded in buying numerous views (some 300), including the Gabriel Grubb plate, already deemed a marvel at the time. This view and many others (approximately 80), were next bought during the 1920s by the collector Will Day, thanks to whom the Cinémathèque owns so many treasures. He understood early on the interest of this iconographic production; moreover, his grandfather had exhibited a few models at the Royal Polytechnic in 1841.

Despite this sad ending, the spectacles of the Royal Polytechnic long remained the absolute reference for lanternists.


Laurent Mannoni, scientific director of the heritage of La Cinémathèque française

[1] Brenda Weeden, History of the Royal Polytechnic Institution 1838–1881 (Cambridge, University of Westminster, 2008).

[2]  The Royal Polytechnic Institution, […] Catalogue for 1841 (London, W. Clowes & Sons, 1841).

[3]  Royal Polytechnic Institution, Programme, February1875, p. 7.

[4] 'Mr. W. R. Hill', The Optical magic lantern journal, vol. 8, no. 103, December 1897, pp. 199-200.

[5] Eduard Mörike, Le Peintre Nolten, in Romantiques allemands (Paris, Pléiade, Gallimard, 1973), p. 1220.

[6] 'Aladdin, Lester Smith’s Polytechnic Slides', The New Magic Lantern Journal, vol. 4, The Ten Year Book, 1986, pp. 44-45.

[7] 'The Lady of the Lake', Dennis Crompton, David Henry, Stephen Herbert, Magic Images, the Art of Hand-Painted and Photographic Lantern Slides (London, The Magic Lantern Society, 1990), pp. 66-68.

[8] Charles Middleton, Magic lantern dissolving views painting (London, Brodie & Middleton, 1876).

[9] Thomas Hepworth, The Book of the Lantern (London, Hazell, Watson and Viney, 1899), p. 97.

[10]  Royal Polytechnic Institution, 'A catalogue of the excellent plant and machinery, […] including nearly 4,000 dissolving views, […] which will be sold by auction by Messrs. Rushworth, Abbott & Stevens, on Tuesday, February 28th, 1882', p. 14.

[11] David Robinson, Stephen Herbert, Richard Crangle (ed.), Encyclopaedia of the Magic Lantern (London, The Magic Lantern Society, 2001), p. 20. Two copies of the astrometroscope are to be found at the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Turin) and La Cinémathèque française (Paris); these are improved eidotropes, with a mechanical system so that rotation is eccentric; the Italian model comes from the Royal Polytechnic.


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  • Exposition Métropolis
  • Nouvelle vague de dons sur la Nouvelle Vague
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