Shipwreck scene - Magic Lantern Show
Stories & Ideas

Tue 21 Jun 2022

Religion, art and the magic lantern in 19th-century Britain

History Light: Works from Tate's Collection The Story of the Moving Image
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Thara Krishna-Pillay

Programmer, Public Programs, ACMI

This Industrial Age precursor to cinema wowed audiences with special effects, angelic visions and dramatic storytelling – all through painted scenes and optical tricks.

For centuries, Christianity was central to daily life in Britain, reflecting the interconnectedness of church and state. Through long periods of upheaval and change – reformations, revolts and civil wars – religion was a constant in society, and artforms such as illuminated manuscripts, needlecraft, sculpture and painting were used as mediums to express faith and tell religious stories.

As the Age of Enlightenment dawned near the end of the 17th century, new ideas about religion, government and society began to emerge, and placed importance on knowledge and order. By the 19th century, advances in scientific discovery dovetailed into the Industrial Revolution with the further development of steam power and the use of machines and chemicals in manufacturing.

Life for the middle classes and the proletariat in Britain was changing. With rapid urbanisation and the spread of the railroad, families began to split and move to the new cities to find work in the smoke-belching factories that were popping up across the country. Ties to local churches and religious traditions were being severed – a cause for concern among the clerical order and writers and artists who drew on older traditions that celebrated nature and used Christian themes and scenes in their work.

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The rise of the magic lantern show

The magic lantern show emerged as a popular form of entertainment as a result of two developments during this period of discovery and invention: experiments and innovations in light and vision leading to the production of optical contraptions and toys; and harsh working conditions and long hours creating a demand for cheap entertainment and leisure during precious downtime for workers.

Magic lanterns were made in all shapes and sizes from materials as diverse as biscuit tins and brass to mahogany and nickel and used hand painted glass slides to project scenes and subject matter limited only by the 19th century imagination.

Audiences attended magic lantern shows in droves to see amazing vistas and discover unknown worlds. Performers told jokes and fairytales, travelling showmen unveiled exotic locales, scientists announced their latest discoveries and magicians spooked audiences with dancing skeletons. These shows were a precursor to cinema and their creators provided special effects and dramatic storytelling through beautifully painted scenes.

Explore magic lanterns and slides on display in our centrepiece exhibition, The Story of the Moving Image

In the face of changing attitudes to religion, clergymen cottoned on to this new technology as a way of bringing Christian teachings to the masses in a new and ‘entertaining’ way, with accompanying hymns and slide shows of bible stories portraying moral and cautionary tales, which included sinners roasting in Hell and the figure of Death wielding a scythe. The special effects created with lantern slides had not been seen before and they blurred the lines between the known and unknown. These tricks of the eye provided a unique opportunity for the makers of religious lantern shows to include miraculous ‘visions’ such as the appearance of angels.

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Jane Conquest

Staged in Melbourne during the 1890s, Jane Conquest was a popular example of a moral tale that employed various magic slide techniques. The story follows Jane as she cares for her sick child while her husband, Harry, is lost at sea. When it seems hope is lost, an angel appears to guide her, superimposed into the story by an effect slide. Not only did Jane Conquest feature early special effects, but it also anticipated film techniques like parallel narratives as slides alternating between Jane’s and Harry’s stories.

Title slide - Jane Conquest - Creator, York & Son, England
Two figures looking over cliff side to windswept sea and row boat - Jane conquest - Creator, York & Son, England
Man with lantern, woman standing by baby’s bassinet and seated man - Jane Conquest - Creator, York & Son, England
Man with lantern standing by collapsed woman - Jane Conquest - Creator, York & Son, England
Man entering house in snow - Jane Conquest - Creator, York & Son, England
Harry Conquest with his head in his hands by baby’s bassinet - Jane Conquest - Creator, York & Son, England

Dramatic and emotional, Jane Conquest tugged at the heartstrings of 19th century audiences with its pathos, sacrifice, heroism, danger and happy ending. It was a brilliant example of industrial age invention, religious teachings, and art and entertainment working in concert to reconnect a rapidly changing society with its past.

Thara Krishna-Pillay

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