How the Victorians first saw their world on film

With Britain’s earliest moving images about to be unveiled again on the IMAX screen, BFI curator Bryony Dixon tells the story of the pioneers who first captured the Victorian world on film.

Bryony Dixon

Afternoon Tea at Clarence House (1897)

Afternoon Tea at Clarence House (1897)

The bold experimenters at the dawn of the moving picture revolution tried out all of the exciting possibilities of the new medium. The large format film was one way to astound the audience with the depth and clarity of the new moving images as they were projected onto a massive screen.

At four times the size of the 35mm films used by most early film exhibitors, these fabulously clear and steady films, no longer than a minute or two, captured the tail end of the Victorian world in all its variety and splendour.

Since they were new, 120 or so years ago, the film prints have been in the wars – mostly lost, as obsolete technologies tend to be, losing frames to the ravages of time. As we have lost the means to show them to their full potential, they have only been the preserve of archival conferences and the specialist festivals that keep interest in such film alive.

But now, thanks to the generosity of our sponsors and plenty of curatorial and technical knowhow, we can return them to the big screen – our biggest screen – the BFI IMAX.

He and She (1898)

He and She (1898)

So many aspects of the Victorian world are present in these short fragments. There’s Queen Victoria herself, from her diamond jubilee to her last official public appearance, helping lay the foundation stone for the V&A museum. There’s the simple movement of the natural world that so fascinated those early spectators – sea waves and animal life – and the bustling city streets of our highly urbanised world.

The films record the fixed events of the Victorian calendar: thrilling sporting events, military parades and more extraordinary events, such as pictures from the Boer war. Then there are panoramas of exotic locations, glorious phantom rides and films of Victorian entertainers – from grand Shakespearean actors to pantomime artistes.

These films give us a new understanding of the Victorian period. The extraordinary quality and clarity of the large format images bring a sense of immediacy and direct connection, enabling the viewer to reach out and touch the past. These fragmentary moments foreground gestures and aspects of human behaviour, such as humour, tenderness and spontaneity, which help dispel any preconceptions of the sober Victorian.

A very few of these large format films that survive in our collection were made on a 60mm format by two makers: talented English mechanical engineer John Alfred Prestwich and Frenchman Georges Demenÿ for the Gaumont company. But by far the majority of the films were made on 68mm film (2.75 inches), very near to IMAX size, by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, whose chief technician, cameraman and creative spirit was William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson.

Henley Regatta (1901)

Henley Regatta (1901)

The company was an offshoot of the American company founded by Herman Casler, Elias Koopman and Harry Marvin to exploit their large format individual film viewer, the Mutoscope, with its projected version, the Biograph.

Dickson, a Scottish English engineer, had recently parted company with Thomas Edison for whom he had been running a research laboratory since 1883, leading to the development of moving pictures for the Kinetoscope viewing machine.

He had invented a film studio to be able to capture on film all the famous stage acts of the day: bodybuilder Sandow, sharpshooter Annie Oakley, Annabelle the skirt dancer and hundreds of others. But now it was time to branch out on his own. He left for London, where he launched the British company that enjoyed a residency at the Palace Theatre of Varieties from 1897 to around 1901/2.

Amann, the Great Impersonator (1899)

Amann, the Great Impersonator (1899)

This was a prestigious, newly-built West End music hall – big screen, big orchestra and the best acts. Its rivals were the great Leicester Square music halls, the Empire and the Alhambra, where the Lumière brothers’ Cinematograph and R.W. Paul’s Theatrograph were playing as part of a mixed programme of different acts.

The film show was an ‘act’ in itself – about 20 mins or so in duration – projected from a box at the back of the theatre. It would probably have had music from the house orchestra and a running commentary. Individual films had no titles but were listed in the programme. We will be recreating aspects of this in show at the IMAX.

Dickson came to London to set up the British Biograph company with other franchises to be opened in France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and beyond. He timed his arrival to allow him to film the spectacle of the decade, Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee, in June 1897.

Applying his natural confidence and gift for ingratiating himself, he was invited to film the royal family in July at Clarence House and screen the results to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII. He filmed many royal occasions, in Britain and the Netherlands, and was even after much negotiation allowed to film the pope, Leo VIII.

As well as filming the sensational state occasions of the day, there were films of more everyday interest: ship launches, sporting fixtures, trains rushing towards the audience, train, tram and boat rides, military spectacles and scenes from others cities overseas.

In 1899 Dickson took the Biograph camera to war. Attempting to capture the action on the very large, very heavy camera, with its batteries and tripod all weighing in, would have been a challenge in any war, but the Boer war was one with no great cavalry charges or face-to-face battles.

Handling the Victorian film

Handling the Victorian film

The precious fragments that have survived show the long road to relieve the siege at Ladysmith. The hardships of this tour were considerable. Dickson talked his way into accompanying a naval artillery unit so that he and his assistants had some protection, but supplies and transport were a constant concern.

It took its toll; they were all ill with fever but made it back and the films seem to have been successful with the audience of the Palace Theatres when other venues were finding the gung-ho attitude of their patrons faded with every British defeat in South Africa.

Family bereavement and difficulty in sustaining profits with the Biograph large format led Dickson to get out of the film business, after nearly 20 years developing its potential, and return to his first love: engineering.

Dickson’s legacy is immense and his great Biograph venture, with its super high quality images, is testament to his talents. As we go through our own revolution in how we see the world through the lens of a camera, it’s a good moment to reflect on how the first film audiences saw their world projected on a big screen.

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