The Importance of Being Earnest (and Ernest)

For me, a highlight of working with museum collections is the little ‘side alley’ of information I can often find myself disappearing down. In my current role as collection assistant I am working with material from the Barnes Collection of film-related ephemera at Hove Museum, ensuring it is catalogued on our collections database and scanning images of the documents.

This is part of a wider project funded by the John Ellerman Foundation called Film Pioneers which includes a review of the Media & Film collection, improved documentation of the objects, and a forthcoming exhibition ‘Experimental Motion’ in the Spotlight Gallery at Brighton Museum.

The Barnes Collection was gathered by twin brothers William and John Barnes and formed the basis of their Museum of Cinematography in St Ives, Cornwall. William ‘the archaeologist’ would seek out the items, from postcards to early cine cameras, which enabled John ‘the interpreter’ to piece together the history of early film making and cinema. As well the equipment, the Barnes brothers kept all kinds of printed ephemera such as programmes and catalogues, and also newspaper cuttings. It was a series of these cuttings which caught my attention.

Over the years there has been much debate about who actually invented ‘the moving picture’. The name William Friese-Greene is often cited and this is probably largely due to the influence of the 1951 film ‘The Magic Box’, based on a biography of Friese-Greene by Ray Allister. ‘The Magic Box’ was released to coincide with the Festival of Britain, and the producers had clearly gone to a lot of effort in gathering a star-studded cast of British actors to tell the story of this great British invention, The Cinema. Both the book and the film are considered to have presented a ‘romanticised’ account of the facts (laced with many fictions).

One of the minor figures in the film is Rudge, an inventor with whom Friese-Greene worked. It is thought that Rudge’s early experimentation in creating moving images influenced Friese-Greene, who adopted the same ideas and expanded them. Many film historians now dismiss Friese-Greene’s contribution to the advancement of cinematic technology, as others working in the field at the same time produced more successful equipment, but there is no doubt that Friese-Greene and his mentor experimented enthusiastically towards this goal.

So who was Rudge?

John Arthur Roebuck Rudge was born in Bath on 26 July 1837, 179 years ago today. His friends called him a ‘JAR of Knowledge’ (in reference to his initials) and his work ranged from penny-in-the-slot machines to early x-ray apparatus. He was the inventor of the Biophantascope, a type of magic lantern designed to project a sequence of still photographs so as to create the illusion of movement on screen. One of his early experiments features a young boy, Frank Huxtable. Frank was photographed making a variety of facial expressions which were then animated using the Biophantoscope.

Newspaper article 26th July 1938
Newspaper article 26th July 1938

Many of the newspaper cuttings relating to Rudge are of the ‘letter to the editor’ type, written to the Bath Chronicle and Herald by Ernest Crawford, viewed as a somewhat eccentric character himself. Ernest by name, earnest by nature it seems. Being a young friend of Frank Huxtable, Ernest had known Rudge personally and apparently joined in with these photo gurning sessions. He clearly admired Rudge and made it his mission to see the inventor gain the respect he was due. Crawford’s letters, dated from around 1934-1943, are just a sample of his ‘yearly reminders’ to the public of Bath that they (particularly the ‘eager…fellow citizens [who] enjoy the moving pictures’) should honour Rudge by placing flowers on his grave on the anniversary of his birth. The general tone, that of an outraged headmaster admonishing his pupils, perhaps did not endear him to the readers.

When Rudge died in 1903 he was virtually penniless. It wasn’t until 1926 that a memorial stone was put up in St. Michael’s Cemetery, Rudge’s final resting place, after Crawford’s ‘22 years’ unremitting agitation on my part.’

The headstone was paid for by Alderman Cedric Chivers who also generously funded a grand and wordy plaque to both Rudge and Friese-Greene, sited near Rudge’s house in New Bond Street, which can still be found alongside another smaller plaque.

This rather more concise panel is the ‘persistently banned citizens’ tablet’ referred to by Crawford, also the designer; paid for by local subscribers, it was refused permission to be mounted on Rudge’s former house by the Bath Corporate Property Committee for ‘no valid reason’. It seems that Crawford at last won this match; in his own words ‘One might almost suspect the world of a conspiracy to ignore Rudge, and my efforts to rescue his name from oblivion have been a continual and watchful contest…’

Intrigued by this correspondence, I resolved to go and find Rudge’s grave myself. I knew where it was and what it looked like, thanks to photographs, also in the Barnes Collection, possibly taken late 1980s or early 90s. An internet search proved fruitless save for one 2014 article which both gladdened and saddened me simultaneously. Adrian Payne, surely a spiritual descendant of Ernest Crawford, had written a plea (in somewhat gentler tones) to the public via the Bath Chronicle. His wish? To see the inscription on Rudge’s grave, presently unreadable, restored to its former glory. Adrian, who had been ‘involved in cinematograph engineering for most of my working life’, was now 80 years old and felt that he could not take up this project himself.

Spurred on by these words of a contemporary Crawford, I found the perfect opportunity to visit. I was due to attend the summer meeting of the Magic Lantern Society in Bath merely days before Rudge’s birthday. Thanks to the photographs and the warning of illegibility I located the grave quite easily. In 1943 Crawford was ‘utterly astonished’ to find the vacant vase he had provided ‘now filled with a fine bouquet of yellow flowers’, giving him ‘a pleasant surprise’. As this vase was no longer there I found my own appropriate one; a vessel fashioned as a jar which functioned as a lantern. I removed the LED light fitting and substituted it with sunflowers, nature’s own illuminant.

Rudge's grave 2016
Rudge’s grave 2016

Rudge’s memorial stone was placed 80 years ago. 2017 will be the 180th anniversary of Rudge’s birth. As one who regularly likes to ‘enjoy the moving pictures’ I feel a fitting gift would be to restore the inscription on his grave and have already sown seeds of encouragement among his supporters. I hope these will bloom into action and that JAR Rudge, Ernest Crawford and Adrian Payne will all find this ‘a pleasant surprise’.

Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant, Film Pioneers project