On Saturday just after my Spiller & Tait Coffee I went along to the Gothic Magic Lantern Show organised by the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum on Campus. The show was given by Mervyn Heard, one of the country’s foremost lanternists.
The lantern itself was a wonderful feat of engineering from a bygone age – with polished wood box, a slot at the front to hold the lantern slide plates and two extending brass tubes protruding from the front. Before electricity, lanterns were lit by candles and later “limelight”, created through a very dangerous process of heating a piece of limestone in burning gas until it became incandescent and gave off a very strong light. The lantern on Saturday was thankfully lit by electricity! It projected very effectively images from glass slides measuring about 10 cm in height onto a large screen.
Mervyn Heard took us through a range of fascinating slides which at one time would have shocked and enthralled audiences, in a time before the cinema, after which people became used to seeing moving images on screen. Figures in slides appeared to ‘move’ – and images of landscapes changed from night to day – this effect was created by the lanternist carefully moving one slide behind another.
Older slides were intricately hand-painted, but later slides might be photographic images, either black and white or black and white with tinted colours.
Storytelling was also a huge part of the lanternist’s art – through the pictures projected from the lantern and artful storytelling, wonderful and shocking tales would come to life. Mervyn explained that in fact, the magic lantern could be said to be more akin to theatre than cinema, as the success of the images to move the audience depended on the storytelling and acting skills of the lanternist.
The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum has a huge collection of lantern slides, some of which are on display in the Museum on the Streatham Campus. Others can be seen in digital format on the Museum’s website.