One of the most famous magic lantern slides is the one of a man swallowing rats. The man is asleep in bed; his beard rises and falls; he snores. Then you turn a handle and a rat creeps up the counterpane towards his mouth. When the man breathes out, the rat goes back. Eventually the man swallows it, with a huge gobbling noise. That’s why the Victorians knew it as a ‘magic’ lantern. In an era when your brightest lighting was oil lamps or candles and the only coloured images you’d see were stained glass windows, here were brightly illuminated, coloured images – and they moved!
I became interested in magic lanterns as a student. I’ve always liked the photography of the Victorian era but photographs on paper were far too expensive for me. Back then you could buy magic lantern slides – photographs from the 1880s / 1890s on glass – in boxes outside junk shops. I picked some up and that was it.
I’ve been collecting for around 40 years now. I’ve got all sorts. The vast majority of these slides were educational or religious. They were very popular with the temperance movement. Then there’s life model slides, which are the Victorian equivalent of soap operas and feature posed characters, with a printed reading that goes with the slide, against a painted backdrop.
I’ve got slides of children playing on The Level and some of the first Brighton scouts in 1910 – a rather poignant image of an array of young boys who would become the war generation. I have quite a few of Brighton pubs. There’s one I particularly like of The Tavern on Boundary Road, and coming out is a lady, head down, with her ceramic jug of beer.
In the first half hour of my show I focus on the artistry of early hand-painted slides dating from the 1820s. Then I move into the comic ‘slipper slides’. A typical one might be a John Bull-type man holding a pig’s head on a plate. You pull the slip and swiftly his head ends up on the plate and the pig’s head on his shoulders. I always finish with chromotropes set to electronic music. A chromotrope is a static glass slide with a painted pattern on it, and two other slides that rotate against each other. Don’t let anyone tell you psychedelia was invented in the 1960s!
I have one slide of people on Brighton beach, the chain pier in the background – so it’s around 1823. There’s a baby with a huge bonnet that you only see from the back and next to him is his mother. Just at the point the shutter is pulled, her attention has obviously been caught by the photographer and she’s looked over her shoulder at the camera. You look her straight in the eyes. That’s what I love about magic lanterns – it’s the closest I’ll ever come to time travel.
Trevor Beattie’s Magic Lantern Show is at The Keep on 30th Jan, 5.30pm, £5. thekeep.info