Telling Tales

The ancient art of storytelling has often been enhanced by some kind of visual element, from hand shadow characters in front of the fire to the latest blockbuster movie at your local cinema.

You can learn more about these and the magic of early cinema and filmmaking at Hove Museum Days of Wonder festival, 17-19 February but for now our Collections Assistant Alexia explores their origins. 

Slide workshop image
Slide workshop image

As early as the 1600s, magic lanterns have been used to project images to an audience, shining a light through small glass slides with pictures on. They hold a fascination for us, which perhaps has its origins in an art form much older than the magic lantern.

The ancient Egyptians knew how to make and colour glass 3000 years ago. Over time this knowledge developed and eventually the stained glass window began to appear. Initially used in small quantities in wealthy homes, from the churches had these decorative and instructive windows installed from the twelfth century onwards . Painton Cowen, a writer and photographer of stained glass, describes them as ‘instruments of mass communication’ and ‘an invaluable teaching aid…to the majority who could not read or understand Latin’. Could we not say the same of lantern slides?

Bible story
Bible story

Church stained glass windows were used to show stories from the Bible in glorious colour while the priest provided the narrative. Similarly, a typical lantern show would be accompanied by a narrator, following a pre-written script or reading, or performed from memory. In fact, lantern presentations of the parables eventually became very popular, and some churches still have the lanterns and slides that were used.

A single picture can give the viewer a certain amount of information; combining a series of pictures and showing them in succession enables the narrator to move the action forward to a conclusion. Some of the earlier lantern slides, known as panorama slides, were long pieces of glass with parts of the story drawn on by hand. The lanternist would simply push the glass along until the next part of the story was showing on the screen. Later, commercially produced sets became available, with numbered slides and a corresponding reading.

In the 1890s, George Albert Smith and James Williamson were both experienced lanternists when they began experimenting with the new medium of film. They were able to use their knowledge of lantern slides as visual inspiration, a storyboard which they could translate into moving images.

Miller & Sweep
Miller & Sweep

This encounter between two dusty workers led to Smith’s fast and furious The Miller and The Sweep in 1897. Williamson must have felt that this horse-drawn fire engine would be much more exciting if the audience could watch it hurtling towards them, and it became a scene in his 1901 film Fire!

Fire
Fire

So, if this has fanned the flames of your imagination, come along to Hove Museum for the Days of Wonder festival, 17-19 February, find out more about magic lanterns, and go home with tales to tell!

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Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant

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