OBJECT OF THE MONTH - April

Bi-unial magic lantern, London, c.1880, collection of La Cinémathèque française. Photograph by Stéphane Dabrowski.

Bi-unial magic lantern, London, c.1880, collection of La Cinémathèque française. Photograph by Stéphane Dabrowski.

The Art of the Magic Lantern: Before the Birth of Cinema

Thought to have first appeared in the Netherlands in the second half of the seventeenth century, the magic lantern was a pre-cinema technical device used to project still and moving images, carefully hand-painted onto glass slides, onto a screen. This was the first ever form of animated projection dating from before the emergence of cinema. Lantern shows were often accompanied by lectures, music and storytelling to entertain, educate and enchant audiences. The magic lantern remained popular for many years after the rise of cinema in the late nineteenth century, enduring throughout the 1920s, and can be seen as the closest ancestor of modern day cinema.

Omar mosque day and night, London, Carpenter, c.1860, collection of La Cinémathèque française. Photograph by Stéphane Dabrowski.

Omar mosque day and night, London, Carpenter, c.1860, collection of La Cinémathèque française. Photograph by Stéphane Dabrowski.


The bi-unial magic lantern of La Cinémathèque française is a double magic lantern which was made in England around 1890 and works using gas lighting. Through its two lenses, the magic lantern allows for beautiful ‘dissolving views’ - a special effect which causes one image to fade into another, creating the impression of a changing scene. The principle of the dissolving views was a significant invention which was quickly adopted and applied by early pioneers of cinema.

Omar mosque day and night, London, Carpenter, c.1860, collection of La Cinémathèque française. Photograph by Stéphane Dabrowski.

Omar mosque day and night, London, Carpenter, c.1860, collection of La Cinémathèque française. Photograph by Stéphane Dabrowski.

Before the birth of the cinematic spectacle, this was one of the only methods which existed for projecting a scene which appears to transform over time, for example a landscape depicted in broad daylight which gradually slides into the night. This representation of day to night, this projection of time passing which was non-existent in the other arts, was to be the essence of what would become ‘cinema’.

Discover this double magic lantern and the story of the birth of cinema in our exhibition Cinema: Treasures from La Cinémathèque française. For further information about this touring exhibition please contact us at info@nomadexhibitions.com.

David Roberts