As Assistant curator Matt Lee reports, we have a wonderful new addition to the museum’s ever-expanding collection, a large and striking, biunial magic lantern. This particularly fine example was acquired at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood auction house, Exeter by Phil Wickham, the museum’s Curator.

What is a biunial magic lantern? Biunial lanterns had two lenses instead of the usual one and were better suited to projecting dissolves, (the transition from one image to the other) and other more elaborate optical effects, such as an image changing from day to night. It was the use of limelight, produced by heating a block of quicklime (calcium oxide), that made it possible to design multiple lanterns in a single unit.

The additional technical complexity of the biunial was designed to awe audiences, but it required skill, dexterity and often a degree of showmanship by the operator, known as a “lanternist”, to work the dual-lens system.  The ergonomic advantage of having the two lenses one above the other as opposed to side-by-side meant the lanternist did not have to move around as much when changing slides.

The museum’s biunial is of French origin and is inscribed: A Laverne & Co, Clément & Gilmer Suc’rs, Paris

As can be gleaned from the inscription (“Suc’rs” - short for successors) the company of Clément & Gilmer bought out A Laverne & Co - a well-established producer of quality lanterns - in the early 1890s and continued the business. Given the inter-related histories of the companies involved we believe the biunial was made in the mid-1890s.

The lantern body is made from mahogany and brass, with contrasting panelled doors and carry handles. It sits atop a supporting baseboard and there are porthole-style windows with lavender coloured glass. These tinted windows enabled the lanternist to the check light levels without dazzling the audience. What’s more, the intensity of the light meant that the biunial could get hot when in operation and brass vertical ventilation slots and ornate, triple-fluted chimney helped cool the lantern.

Ownership of a larger and technically more sophisticated biunial became a mark of status for a lanternist and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum is delighted to house this impressive lantern in its displays. 

The lantern was acquired thanks to the generosity of the Bill Douglas and Peter Jewell Permanent Endowment Fund.


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