William Friese-Greene: a reputation set in stone

On 5 May 1921, members of the film and cinema trade gathered at the Connaught Rooms, Kingsway, London for a meeting on the current precarious state of the British film industry.

 William Friese-Greene’s memorial, Highgate Cemetery, the Barnes Collection.

William Friese-Greene’s memorial, Highgate Cemetery, the Barnes Collection.

A heated discussion ensued and from the audience, an unknown man stepped up to address those present. He spoke passionately, urging the quarreling factions to work together on a solution. Shortly after returning to his seat, the man collapsed with heart failure and died. A tragic ending for William Friese-Greene, once known as the ‘inventor of kinematography’.

Friese-Greene’s life and reputation have both followed the undulations of a rollercoaster ride. Although best known for his link with early moving image capture and colour, he seems to have had his fingers in all kinds of experimental ‘pies’. Given my penchant for bizarre headwear, I was delighted by the patent he submitted for an advertising hat. He enjoyed some success, notably as a studio photographer, but any wealth from this went into less reliable pursuits, and many of his projects were commercial failures.

His position in the Film Hall of Fame has shifted over the decades. He died penniless, but after his death, he received somewhat belated attention, with a grand funeral and headstone in Highgate Cemetery. Idealised accounts of his achievements, in particular Ray Allister’s Friese-Greene: CloseUp of an Inventor (1948), led to the biopic The Magic Box (1951) and Friese-Greene became the father of film in the British public’s mind.

After more research was conducted into the early years of filmmaking , it was suggested that Friese-Greene’s contributions were less than had been previously imagined. Even so, film historians John and William Barnes still felt him worthy of a place in their collection, despite John’s belief that to call Friese-Greene the true inventor of cinema was an ‘absurdity’. One of the items is this photograph of the memorial in Highgate Cemetery. It is, in fact, much grander than it looks here; above the base there is a tall spire surmounted by a cross. But it is the inscription which is of most interest. For it is here that Friese-Greene’s reputation has literally been set in stone:

‘William Friese Greene – The Inventor of Kinematography – His genius bestowed upon humanity – The boon of commercial kinematography – Of which he was the first inventor and patentee’.

Just to make it perfectly clear, this inscription concludes with a patent number as proof, although this is incorrectly given as 10301. Patent 10131 of 21 June 1889 is for the chronophotographic camera, capable of taking up to ten pictures per second on a strip of celluloid film. But as this camera wasn’t reliable nor fast enough, it was not commercially successful. He even sold the rights to the patent to pay his debts, but the patent was never renewed and lapsed.

However, it seems that Friese-Greene is emerging from the shadows once again. He may not have been the sole inventor of cinema but his contributions to the development of the moving image are being reviewed in a more favourable light, and he certainly has his supporters.

What shines through his story is the passion with which he attempted to perfect his vision of moving pictures to be enjoyed by all, and his dedication to the film industry. His heart may have failed him at that fateful meeting, but it was clearly in the right place.

Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant

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One Response

  1. David Fisher

    The release of the film about Friese Greene, The Magic Box, prompted Brighton Council to erect the plaque at 20 Middle Street in September 1951. Unfortunately, the claim that it was here he ‘carried out his original experiments that led to a world-wide industry’ is based on Allister’s unreliable biography. Those experiments were conducted in London. WFG’s association with Middle Street was for a brief period in 1905, when he had just come out of prison—a sentence for issuing cheques while an undischarged bankrupt—and was working on colour cinematography. He lived and worked in Brighton and Hove from then until 1913. There is a more reliable plaque on 9 Worcester Villas. Nonetheless, he was a major pioneer and his 1889 patent was regarded as the master patent for cinematography in court cases in America before the First World War.

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