George Albert Smith

Postcard reminiscent of Smith's film Kiss in the Tunnel, MF000195
Postcard reminiscent of Smith’s film Kiss in the Tunnel, MF000195

George Albert Smith (1864-1959) was part of the Brighton School of cinematography and was one of the most influential figures in Victorian cinema. Before becoming a filmmaker, Smith was an established showman and would often perform as a magic lanternist, hypnotist and psychic. Smith was the proprietor of St Ann’s Well Garden in Hove and invented Kinemacolor. Kinemacolor was the first commercially viable colour film process.

The Barnes Collection has a large selection of apparatus and ephemera relating to George Albert Smith. This includes a variety of photographs, articles, postcards, books, programmes and a Kinemacolor camera. A selection of Smith’s surviving films are shown in the Cinema Gallery at Hove Museum & Art Gallery.


Early years

George Albert Smith was born in London on the 4 January 1864. He moved to Brighton after his father died. After leaving school, Smith began performing as a stage hypnotist at a variety of venues around Brighton. A favourite haunt of Smith’s was the Brighton Aquarium. In 1882 he teamed up with Douglas Blackburn to form a psychic double-act. They developed a ‘second sight act’ whereby one performer would hide an object and the other, blindfolded, would locate it. Smith maintained that there was a genuine telepathic link between the two but Blackburn admitted that the show was a hoax.

The film making years

In 1892, George Albert Smith acquired the lease to St Ann’s Well Garden in Hove and turned it into a popular tourist attraction. Four years later, whilst in London, Smith saw a film demonstration by the Lumiere brothers. Smith was so inspired by the new technology that he bought his first

Postcard of the Brighton Aquarium, MF000145
Postcard of the Brighton Aquarium, MF000145

camera and began making short films in and around St Ann’s Well Garden.

Smith quickly became a prolific filmmaker and in 1897 alone he made over 30 films. Many of Smith’s films were screened at the Brighton Aquarium and were advertised as ‘The Photographic Sensation of the Day’. Smith worked closely with the engineer Alfred Darling and local comedian Tom Green appeared in many of his films.

St Ann’s Well soon became Smith’s ‘film factory’. The Pump House was turned into a laboratory and a special glass-sided studio was built. It was here that Smith developed experimental techniques such as cutting, close-ups and double-exposure.

In the late 1890s, Smith began processing film commercially. He purchased chemicals from fellow filmmaker and chemist James Williamson and he counted John Benett-Stanford as one of his customers. Smith’s biggest client, however, was the Warwick Trading Company which was then managed by Charles Urban. The Warwick Trading Company helped distribute Smith’s films before the Charles Urban Trading Company took over this role in 1903. Smith’s films were also met with acclaim from abroad as the Vitagraph Company of New York distributed his films throughout the United States.

Postcard of the Lodge at St Ann's Well Gardens, MF000198
Postcard of the Lodge at St Ann’s Well Gardens, MF000198

Kinemacolor years

Advert for Kinemacolor demonstration MF000231
Advert for Kinemacolor demonstration MF000231

In 1903, Charles Urban bought the rights to Kinemacolor from the inventor Edward Turner and his financier F. Marshall Lee. Kinemacolor was a three colour additive process and Urban charged Smith with making it a success. Smith gave up his filmmaking career to concentrate on creating the first colour film. He sold St Ann’s Well Garden in 1905 before discovering that Kinemacolor required only two colours (red and green) to make a satisfactory colour image. In May 1908, Smith and Urban unveiled the first colour film at the Urbanora House. It met with a staggered response.

Kinemacolor was demonstrated in Paris and New York and Smith was awarded a Silver Medal by the Royal Society of Arts for his outstanding contribution to film. In 1913, however, film pioneer William Friese-Greene took Urban and Smith to court citing that their patent was ‘insufficiently detailed’. Friese-Greene had developed his own additive colour technique, Biocolour, and was frustrated by Smith’s strangle-hold on the technology. Although Friese-Greene’s challenge was initially unsuccessful, the decision was overruled in March 1914 on a technicality. The appeal judge asserted that the patent’s claim to create ‘natural colour’ was impossible because red and green filters could never create a ‘natural’ blue.

Later years

William Friese-Greene’s lawsuit halted the development of Kinemacolor and brought an end to George Albert Smith’s career in the film industry. In his later years Smith became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and pursued his other interests. In the 1940s, Smith was rediscovered by the film community. He was interviewed by Ernest Lindgren, Rachael Low and Georges Sadoul whilst Michael Balcon described him as ‘the father of the British film industry’. In 1955 he was made a Fellow of the British Film Academy and his position as one of the most important figures in British film history was confirmed. He died in Brighton on 17 May 1959.

Significance of films

Superimposed ghost similar to effects created in Smith's films, MF000193
Superimposed ghost similar to effects created in Smith’s films, MF000193

George Albert Smith was one of the most influential filmmakers of his generation and was one of the first to explore fictional and fantastical themes. Smith’s experience of using bi-unial and tri-unial magic lanterns (lanterns with two and three lenses) informed his filmmaking and helped him develop new cutting techniques. Smith was an inspired innovator and revelled in the freedom that the new medium afforded him. Indeed, Smith pioneered processes such as superimposition, double-exposure, reversing, close-up shots and dream sequences.

Special Effects

George Albert Smith developed a variety of manipulative techniques to achieve special effects, many of which are still used in modern filmmaking. Smith used superimposition to create the illusion of ghostly figures and the use of cutting and interspersing film made it appear as though figures materialised out of nowhere. A good example of this is Smith’s 1898 film Santa Claus. The effect of superimposition was achieved through the double-exposure of film and, in 1897, Smith patented a double-exposure system.

Smith employed the use of reversing film to make seemingly impossible feats possible. For instance, in The House That Jack Built, a young boy destroys a toy house that his sister has built before seeing the house mysteriously rebuild itself. This effect is achieved by reversing the section of film that shows the house falling down.

Editing Techniques

George Albert Smith is widely regarded as the inventor of film editing. Films such as Grandma’s Reading Glass, The House That Jack Built and Let Me Dream Again demonstrate a vast array of editing techniques including the close-up shot, subjective and objective point-of-view shots and reversing. For example, Smith used a studio shot from Kiss in the Tunnel in Cecil Hepworth’s View From an Engine Front – Train Leaving Tunnel to create a three shot sequence. In As Seen Through the Telescope, Smith smoothly cuts from long shots to close-up shots. These techniques created a new sense of continuity and simultaneity that revolutionised narrative thought.

As the film academic Frank Gray notes, Smith rejected the traditional theatrical perspective (a fixed view from the stalls) which had been the model for film production until 1900. For instance, in Grandma’s Reading Glass, we enter the grandson’s mind and see close-up shots of objects through the reading glass. Smith thus pioneered multi-angle and multi-perspective cinematography. Furthermore, Smith originated a number of transitional processes that aided continuity editing. These included wipes, dissolves, pulls and cuts.

Significance of technology

Ticket for the opening of the Kinemacolor Palace, Hull, MF000389
Ticket for the opening of the Kinemacolor Palace, Hull, MF000389

As well as being a pioneer filmmaker, George Albert Smith was also an innovative inventor and film processor. He bought chemicals for processing from James Williamson, cameras and other apparatus from Alfred Darling and sold his films around Europe and America with help from Charles Urban. Smith also helped develop the technology to facilitate his experimentation with editing techniques and special effects.

Smith transformed St Ann’s Well Garden into a ‘film factory’. In 1897 he turned the Pump House into a space for developing and printing film and, in 1899, he built a glass house film studio. Around this time, Smith began commercial film processing and clients included Charles Goodwin Norton, war correspondent John Benett-Stanford and the Warwick Trading Company.

In 1903, Smith stopped making films and began work on developing a colour film process. Charles Urban bought the rights to Kinemacolor and employed Smith to make it a success. Smith discovered that an additive process using red and green could create a colour image and thus Kinemacolor became the first commercially viable colour film process. Kinemacolor was premiered in 1908 and was demonstrated in Paris and New York. It was a huge success. In 1914, however, a patent dispute with William Friese-Greene led to its collapse and the end of Smith’s film career.

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