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A Centenary of Cinema and Beyond – Celebrating the Barnes Brothers

This is a legacy story from an earlier version of our website. It may contain some formatting issues and broken links.

28 June 1920 was an exceptional day. For on that day, not one, but two film historians were born; John and William Barnes, identical twin brothers, and therefore perhaps the only stereoscopic film historians in the world.

Brian Coe, John and William Barnes, and Stephen Herbert with the Kingston Muybridge Centenary plaque in its temporary setting, Museum of the Moving Image, London, 1992. Photo: Courtesy of Lester Smith

John and William, or Bill as he was known, came from a family whose business was in piano manufacture. When they were twelve, their father died and to help them cope with the loss, an uncle gave them a 9.5mm cine-camera. It was this first camera which set them off on their joint path into the world of film making. Indeed, it was assumed that they would become film makers, having made an early and very accomplished start. However, after the Second World War their focus shifted closer to the collecting and research aspects which they had also been interested in. They were particularly keen on investigating the origin of moving pictures and the early pioneers of the medium, such as those who became known as the ‘Brighton School’ – James Williamson, George Albert Smith, Alfred Darling and others.

Of the pair, John took the lead in writing and produced a number of significant books on the subject, including the five volume The Beginnings of Cinema in Britain 1894-1901. Bill ran an antiques stall in London; his expertise was getting out and about to track down the physical material for their collection, but he took up the pen more frequently after John passed away and continued to keep their research in the public eye.

In 1963 they opened the Barnes Museum of Cinematography in St. Ives, Cornwall, where John lived. The museum was run by John and his wife Carmen and served to display the wondrous collection which the brothers had amassed. During the 1980s, there was a plan to move the museum to London, but this fell through and the St. Ives museum closed. A large part of the collection representing the ‘archaeology of cinema’ went to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin, and in 1997 Hove Museum purchased the material relating to the Brighton School.

Sadly, neither of the Barnes brothers lived to become centenarians. John passed away in 2008, just prior to his 88th birthday. Bill made it very close, celebrating his 99th year and could still be found trawling through stalls of ephemera in search of a missing postcard (or a ‘spare’ copy of one already owned). It is thanks to their tireless ‘search and research’ approach that many items were saved and collected, to be preserved for future generations of film historians and the general public alike.

Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant

Discover More

Read about John and William Barnes, and watch their films on the Screen Archive South East website:

View the Barnes Collection on our Close Look at Collections: