James Williamson (1855-1933) was a filmmaker, manufacturer, producer, showman and inventor. He was married to Betsy Heaysman and had four children. Although born in Scotland, Williamson moved to Hove in 1886 and was part of the hugely influential Brighton School of cinematography. He made over 100 short films during his career, many of which were shown across Europe and America.
The Barnes Collection has a large selection of apparatus and ephemera relating to James Williamson. This includes a variety of photographs, articles, episcope cards, postcards, cameras and printers. A selection of Williamson’s surviving films are shown in the Cinema Gallery at Hove Museum & Art Gallery.
James Williamson was born in Pathhead, Scotland, on 8 November 1855. In 1868 Williamson moved to London where he was apprenticed to a chemist. From 1877 Williamson lived in Kent, where he married Betsy Heaysman, before moving to Hove in 1886 to advance his career in pharmaceuticals.
James Williamson purchased his first chemist shop in Hove and, whilst continuing to practise the pharmaceutical trade, he began selling photographic equipment. Williamson was a member of the Hove Camera Club and it was here that he met hugely influential figures such as the pioneering filmmakers George Albert Smith and Esme Collings, the inventor William Friese-Greene and the engineer Alfred Darling. These associations were to have a profound effect on Williamson’s career.
Williamson soon discovered an interest in magic lanterns and in 1894 he began experimenting with film. With Alfred Darling’s technical help and a close association with George Albert Smith, Williamson became a serious filmmaker. Indeed, in 1899 his film catalogue listed 60 titles. As a pioneering cinematographer, Williamson’s output varied greatly, from the melodramatic Deserter (1903) to the realist Attack on a China Mission (1901).
The Williamson Kinematograph Company opened its film production and processing studio in 1902. Williamson’s family played a significant part in this venture; building sets, making costumes and appearing in films. Although he continued to make films, Williamson increasingly focused on equipment manufacture. In 1908 he invented a device with which exhibitors could make their own titles and, in 1910, he patented a projector that could intersperse titles into show reels. Eventually, Williamson switched film production duties to Jack Chart and Dave Aylott before withdrawing completely from filmmaking in 1910.
In 1910 The Williamson Kinematograph Company switched production to London and concentrated solely on manufacturing cameras and printers. Williamson made an aborted return to filmmaking in 1913 when he started a newsreel service. This failed in the early months of World War I. James Williamson died of a heart attack at his home in Richmond on 18 August 1933.
Significance of films
Although not as prolific as many of his contemporaries, James Williamson played a huge role in shaping film history. Williamson’s experience as a magic lanternist and showman saw him introduce the idea of showing a programme of films under a unifying theme. Furthermore, he developed the technique of interspersing title slides throughout his films and invented the technology to make this possible. Williamson’s influence was huge, both in terms of technique and manufacturing technology.
James Williamson was a chief pioneer of film narrative and in Attack on a China Mission (1901) he became the first director to cut from one shot to another for dramatic effect. This, essentially, was the origin of video editing and is further demonstrated in Fire! (1901) in which narrative action is moved along in sequence by cutting between various shots. Likewise, in Stop Thief (1901) Williamson invented the film chase over more than one shot.
As Martin Sopocy asserts, James Williamson laid the foundation for film realism. In 1902 and 1903 he made a trio of films about the hardship war creates for the dependents of soldiers: The Soldiers Return (1902), A Reservist Before and After the War (1902) and Wait Till Jack Comes Home (1903). In A Reservist Before and After the War the pleasant pre-war scene is powerfully juxtaposed with a post-war scene of sickness, poverty and unemployment. This stark social realism became a central theme of British cinema.
James Williamson worked closely with George Albert Smith and both filmmakers hugely influenced the development of trick photography. Trick films used editing techniques to create special effects and optical illusions. In The Puzzled Bather and his Animated Clothes (1902) Williamson utilised reversing to make it appear that a man undressing kept being thwarted by his clothes redressing him. Reversing is essentially playing a portion of film backwards.
Other techniques employed by Williamson include manipulation of negatives, double exposure and interruptions or variation in cranking speed. In The Little Match Seller (1903) Williamson used superimposition to create the impression of a transparent angel.
Actors and Setting
Williamson’s approach to the use of actors and film sets was simple in form yet radical for its time. Williamson would act in many of his films himself and would often recruit friends and family to appear alongside him. This reflects the stylistic shift within film from pictorialism to naturalism as the approach to acting was much more restrained. Furthermore, Williamson would often use celebrities and well-known figures in his films. For instance, the professional comedian Sam Dalton appeared in a number of films including the The Big Swallow, Are You There? and The Magic Extinguisher (all 1901).
Williamson’s attitude to setting was also highly original. His film Fire! (1903) was made on location with real fire brigade staff and apparatus. Likewise, Soldiers Return (1902) was partly filmed at the actual Brighton workhouse.
Significance of technology
Along with being a pioneer filmmaker, James Williamson was also a leading manufacturer of film apparatus and Williamson equipment had an excellent reputation around the world. Williamson began his filmmaking career after developing a camera with the help of the engineer Alfred Darling and he continued to pursue his interest in manufacture alongside his filmmaking. By 1910, all of Williamson’s focus had been diverted to equipment production.
One of Williamson’s first major inventions was the Step-by-Step printer which was manufactured through the Williamson Kinematograph Company. Alongside this, Williamson continued developing camera technology. His Ensign Tropical camera was so-called because it could be used abroad and in inhospitable conditions. The brass fittings prevented the wood from warping in humid climates whilst its compact size made it portable. This made it possible to film foreign events and create international newsreels.
The Williamson Kinematograph Company also invented an Aerial Camera which was designed for military use. The camera was attached to a plane and took a series of still images. It was used for reconnaissance in both World War I and World War II. Other cameras manufactured included a photo-finish camera for horseracing and the first camera intended for use by amateurs for ‘home movies’. Along with these speciality cameras, the Williamson Kinematograph Company made a range of printers, rewinders, developing apparatus and gauges which were widely used in the British film industry.