School student Rowan has been working with us this week and has written a blog for us about discovering magic lanterns for the first time in our collection.


When I first saw magic lantern slides, I was shocked by the intricate detail of the artwork, particularly with many of the landscape sides, which ranged from very small to several inches in length. It was clear that an incredible amount of effort was taken to hand paint some of these slides, which are made of glass, so that light can be shone through the slide with a form of projector called a ‘Magic Lantern’ - a compelling and mysterious name to me.

Some of the slides can be moved so that the image changes before our eyes. Here are two particularly beautiful slides, known as 'rackwork' slides:

Figure1: Rackwork slide of a watermill in the summer (EXEBD 64004)

Figure 2: Rackwork slide of Vesuvius in Flames (EXEBD 64139)

Despite being direct precursors to the modern projector, which are still used in all my school classrooms and every cinema to this day, I discovered that magic lanterns are in no way a recent invention. In fact, they date back all the way to the late seventeenth century - I find it astonishing that over three hundred years ago people used devices so strikingly similar to what we use today. You might think a seventeenth century image projector would be an arcane, complex contraption, but magic lanterns are quite the opposite. In fact, only five basic parts make up the device: a box, two lenses, the lantern slide itself, and, of course, a light source.

As I read more, I found that lantern shows were an extremely popular form of entertainment, particularly in the Victorian period. However, one type of lantern show caught my eye – partially due to the curiously enigmatic name, and the fantastic print that accompanied the showcase: the phantasmagoria show (see featured image at the top of the blog EXEBD 42694). As an avid reader of gothic fiction, the description of these shows sparked my interest; they were horror shows in which terrifying images of skeletons and ghosts were projected around the audience, comparable in many ways to a 4D horror film. I can only imagine how viewers of phantasmagoria at the time would have felt, as the magic lantern projectors were usually hidden from view, and the audience would sit in complete darkness. It must have been a truly supernatural experience for audience members with little knowledge of the tricks used to create the ghostly effects.

Figure 3: Phantasmagoria lantern (EXEBD 69005)

Researching magic lanterns has certainly shaped my understanding of pre-cinema devices and their effect on film as we know it; the invention and popularity of the magic lantern surely paved the way for modern cinema, and lanterns shows like phantasmagoria undoubtedly continue to inspire horror films to this day.

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