A Million Pictures: Magic Lantern Slides in the History of Learning, KINtop studies in early cinema 6, eds. Sarah Dellman and Frank Kessler (John Libbey Publishing and Indiana University Press, 2020), 39-50. ISBN: 0-86198-735-3.
Australians were “early adopters” of magic lantern technology. From 1830 audiences in the colonial capitals, as well as out in the remote regions, became well acquainted with all aspects of the technology. Magic lanterns were incorporated into the programs of the big metropolitan theatres, and itinerant lanternists used local mechanics institutes, schoolrooms, and hotels for their dissolving view entertainments. Although the hand painted slides they were seeing were the same as those exhibited in Europe, the colonial experience of those slides was profoundly different to that of European audiences. The magic lantern became a fundamental part of a colonial society which was often wracked with homesickness for the ‘Old World’ while simultaneously trying to make sense of their new social and physical environment. Through sampling the many newspaper reports of magic lantern shows from the 1830s to the 1890s we are able to chart the way disparate, sometimes estranged, individuals were formed into coherent colonial audiences, audiences amenable to further media developments in the twentieth century, after the federation of the colonies of into the nation of Australia.
You had to sit in the dark for a magic lantern show. This was a strange requirement when audiences were used to seeing performances in theatre auditoriums lit as brightly as the stage itself. Probably the first time an Australian theatre was plunged into darkness was in 1835, for a ghostly effect produced by a phantasmagoric rear projection of the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, an effect first produced eight years earlier at London’s Adelphi Theatre. Sydney audiences going to the Theatre Royal were warned to prepare themselves for the moment at the end of act two when: “The House is suddenly observed to be in total darkness: the storm rages, and the Phantom Ship appears (a la Phantasmagoria)”.
For theatre shows like The Flying Dutchman the sudden darkness of the auditorium and the sudden illumination of the magic lantern were intended to produce an emotional impact on the audience. But gradually audiences began to acclimatise themselves to the darkness that the lantern brought with it wherever it went. In 1846 the schoolhouse at West Maitland, a town about 175 kilometres north of Sydney, needed funds for improvements. One April evening a fundraising tea party was organised. After tea the Reverend J. J. Smith gave a magic lantern lecture on astronomy. But, before he did, the oil lamps in the schoolhouse had to put out. This novelty, the local newspaper authoritatively reported, was “to admit of the images which [the magic lantern] threw upon the wall being seen more vividly than they could in a lighted room”. However darkness also unexpectedly demanded new spatial arrangements. In the cramped and dark schoolhouse Smith had nowhere else to throw his images than on the wall and this created new problems for his audience:
“[…] the lantern itself was in the way of a large number of the audience, as it stood between them and the wall upon which the images were cast. If they had been thrown upon a screen of muslin, the spectators being on one side of it, and the operator and his lantern on the other, all would have seen perfectly the objects depicted in the form of transparencies.”
If darkness was a novelty, its counterpoint was light. Newspapers were constantly complaining that the darkness demanded by the lantern was failing to bring forth a commensurate amount of visual illumination. Many colonial lanternists found it difficult to regulate the flame, maintain focus and change slides at the same time.
When, in 1848, Mr Kesterton charged the Adelaide pubic half a crown to see a “Grand Illustrated Lecture on heavens and the earth, followed by a beautiful exhibition of 20 pictures and six exquisite Chromatropes”, he attempted to use gas rather than oil to project his images. But not only did he put in his slides upside down, but his dissolving views were “enveloped in mist”. Australian magic lantern audiences always measured their experience against an imagined British one so, after robustly castigating him, the South Australian Register concluded:
“We have made these remarks because we feel it to be our duty to shew Mr Kesterton that an attempt to foist a lame rehearsal on the public as an exhibition worthy of their patronage will not be tolerated here any more than in the mother-country; and that if he pretends to cater for the public amusement, he must take the trouble to perfect himself in the management of the apparatus.”
Sometimes the power of pure light was demonstrated. In 1848 J. W. Newland concluded his dissolving view exhibitions by burning a naked block of lime, displayed the wonder of raw light itself. In 1859 in Hobart the lanternist Mr Knight concluded his shows with a “chromatic fire cloud” produced by “driving a quantity of muriatic acid against a board suspended parallel with the ceiling; the acid is then ignited, and a cloud of fire of various colours appears to descend.”
The play of darkness against light was not only a precondition for the ‘magic’ of the magic lantern to work, it also brought into play another important aspect of the colonial experience of the magic lantern — the audience’s behavior.
After the 1830s the magic lantern began to be regularly seen in Australian theatres. For instance, shortly after a lighting effect ‘a la phantasmagoria’ was incorporated into their staging of The Flying Dutchman, Sydney’s Theatre Royal featured the magic lantern apparatus itself as a stand-alone entertainment. As part of a program which also included the play Robinson Crusoe, the farce NO!, and a gymnast performing “a variety of evolutions on the slack rope”, the theatre presented a: “PHANTASMAGORIA or MAGIC LANTHORN, Being a Novelty never yet produced in the Colony and in which will be introduced Eighty Characters, by Mr. Allan”. Later, in 1844, the popular comic actor George Coppin, one of the leaders of Australian theatre, brought a phantasmagoria lantern and dissolving views into his Sydney program.
Australia theatre audiences were drunk, rowdy, and combative. There were brawls in the stalls, members of the audience threw missiles of various sorts or leapt on stage in the middle of performances, and the performers themselves often got into arguments with audience members. However the theatre architecture itself, as well as ticket prices, worked to more or less keep different social strata separated. Generally, prices started at three shillings sixpence for the dress circle down to sixpence for the gallery and the pit, and the dress circle and pit had separate entrances from the street.
But the magic lantern tended to cut across the established, but unstable, architectural and inherited social divisions of the theatre. The pit was a particularly dangerous place, were patrons stood, or crowded onto benches. When, in 1848, J W Newland decided to place his magic lanterns in the pit of the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney’s successor to the old Theatre Royal, for his first shows of dissolving views of European scenes, comic slides, and chromatropes, he was courting trouble. The first show on Monday, 1 May, proceeded uneventfully. But, after his Tuesday performance Newland announced that someone had “maliciously injured” the magic lanterns, which had been located in the pit, so in future performances the apparatus would be set up on the stage.Putting the apparatus up on stage may well have also added to the attraction by exhibiting the act of projection itself.
Newland was not the only lanternist to fall foul of volatile theatre audiences. When they visited Adelaide’s Port Theatre in 1864, Seymour and Gordon advertised boxes in the dress circle for three shillings, but nobody brought them, preferring to spend just one shilling sixpence for the pit, or sixpence for the gallery. As a result the audience, “being unable to appreciate the nature of the entertainment, created such confusion that it was with great difficulty that the exhibition was gone through. The views were good, but the descriptive part was rendered inaudible by the noise”.
If Australian audiences were notoriously boisterous, even in the relatively regulated space of the major theatres, how would they behave in the hotel rooms, mechanics institutes and schoolrooms used by itinerant lanternists?
The very first Australian magic lantern audience recorded were the boys of Captain Beveridge’s Mercantile and Naval Academy, Sydney, who at Christmas time in 1830 were treated to a phantasmagoria show which made them “laugh till they could laugh no more”. Perhaps it was relief at just finishing their exams which made them so cheerful, but the uncontrolled behavior of audiences became a source of anxiety for subsequent lantern shows. As in the UK, the US and Europe, the lantern travelled throughout the colonies and was incorporated into, or competed with, a range of other “scientific” entertainments: phrenological lectures, wax works, spectral illusions (pirating Pepper’s Ghost), camera obscuras, panoramas, dioramas and illuminated transparencies.
For instance in 1865 South Australians could see “an entertainment consisting of the exhibition of a number of dioramic and dissolving views, lately arrived from London”, along with the performance of some “lightning calculations” by a Mr H. Miller who was able to calculate at a glance the number of matches thrown on a table. While phrenologists such as W. Stark and Nicholas Caire combined magic lantern exhibitions of local views with their phrenological readings of the bumps on the heads of their audience. Nicholas Caire would also, as part of the show, administer electric shocks from a galvanic battery to members of the audience who desired it.
Volatile audience behaviours may have been encouraged by the literal volatility of the apparatus itself. For instance in 1882 a gasbag exploded in the Baptist Church Parramatta, blowing out all the windows and setting fire to the organ. And in 1909 exploding lantern set the Casterton Christ Church Hall on fire.
Anxieties were not only over the behaviours of the audience, but the direct effect the magic lantern might have on impressionable minds. The lantern was recognised as particularly appealing to juveniles. In early 1847 a newspaper, commenting on a magic lantern show attended by 390 people, noticed that: “judging from the uproarious laughter and applause of the younger audience, [the dissolving views and phantasmagoria] were exactly adapted to the taste of the juveniles. The house was crowded, and many fashionables attended”. However the lantern’s distant origins and phantasmagoric associations with the occult clung to it as it migrated into mainstream entertainment. For instance later that year another newspaperworried over the same show:
“The exhibition was sort of mélange, consisting of optical illusions, phantasmagoria, fun, and harlequinade. The dissolving views were numerous and diversified, but contained too few representations of local objects. Some of the personal figures bordered upon indelicacy; so much so, as, in our opinion, to deter parents from treating their children to an otherwise harmless amusement; and it struck us that the dance of death savoured too much of profanity, and dangerous disregard […] a prudential change in their exhibition, with an improvement in the mechanical arrangement, would make it worthy of general patronage.”
Other newspapers had more mundane advice to give. In 1852 Alfred Cane put on a dissolving view exhibition at Sydney’s Royal Hotel. After visiting the show, one journalist helpfully offered “two or three suggestions”. Firstly, that “the issue of tickets should be more proportionate to the accommodation”, because many who brought tickets, “far from being able to get seats found it impossible to procure even a standing place from whence a good and clear sight could be obtained of each view”. Secondly, that some steps be taken to repress the “unruly propensities” of the “fast-boys” who “persist in standing up so as to hinder the view of those sitting behind, and indulge in other freaks equally amusing to themselves but unpleasant to others”. Thirdly, that the lanterns be brighter and sharper, because the views were “scarcely distinct as to their finer lines when seen from any distance”. And lastly, “that the music should be so arranged that each air may bear some analogy to the view actually before the audience”. This reviewer wasn’t all that impressed with the quality of the slides either. While admitting that, as a whole, the views were “truly beautiful”, he complained that:
“[…] the artist has indulged somewhat too freely in tints of green and deep blue, and that […] there is far little light and brilliancy in the skies. In most of the scenes the light appeared rather to flow from the earth than from the Heavens”.
Adelaide had a solution to Cane’s problem with “fast-boys”. In 1854 nearly a thousand people attended the Mechanics Institute for “Mr Knight’s beautiful and picturesque views”:
“Considerable annoyance has previously been caused by the pranks of some mischievous schoolboys; last night two constables with dark lanterns were placed at the doors, and the boys were removed to the lower end of the room, where they were perfectly visible the whole evening; they were also under proper guardianship.”
If juveniles had trouble containing themselves, adults also felt the new and peculiar power of the apparatus. Sometimes the lantern made adults almost feel afraid, but it was a fear suspended within the terms laid down by the apparatus, like the fear we experience in an amusement park ride today. In 1848, when J W Newland projected live weevils through an oxy-hydrogen microscope, their: “extraordinary size and quick and ferocious movements almost gave rise to a feeling of fear in the mind.” In 1859 the landlord Smith O’Brien gave an annual entertainment for his tenants. However, “Some of the magic lantern ‘apparitions’ almost terrified many of the rustic spectators, as most of them had never before witnessed a like performance.”
Not only fears, but also tears, could be provoked by the lantern. In 1853, at St Mary’s Seminary, “[t[he enthusiastic bursts of applause with which the views of the venerable ruins of our Fatherland were received proved how deeply rooted she is in the affections of her children”. When the English baritone G. H. Snazelle presented Tennyson’s poem Enoch Arden at the Adelaide Town Hall in1891 he brought tears to they eyes of many in the audience. And, during the 1880s, the entertainment The Old Home: Or England Past and Present, and similar entertainments which mixed views of England with portraits of the Queen, were given in Adelaide, and were concluded with the tearful singing of God Save the Queen.
These examples indicate the consternation, both positive and negative, caused by the apparatus of the lantern. However that consternation eventually transformed itself into either imaginative reverie or optical wonder. Two developments effected this transformation: firstly, audiences disciplined themselves with self-control; secondly, the images on the screen were disciplined with music and commentary.
The issues lanternists encountered with controlling audience behavior, while at the same time controlling their complex apparatus, certainly weren’t unique to Australia, they were encountered in Europe, the US and the UK as well. But at the edge of the British Empire a heightened awareness of time and geography ran through the Australian experience, not only of the time it took for new inventions to reach them in the form of the new entertainments that they could patronise, but also the various personal and biographical distances those experiential novelties measured. This was not only a distance from metropolis to province, but from one end of the world to another, and from a nostalgically remembered past to a frontier present.
Some magic lantern shows directly conjured this sense of distance as audience experience. Although, for one captious writer, the over-sale of tickets, the antics of “fast-boys”, the dim projections, the random music, and the poorly painted slides had marred Alfred Cane’s exhibition, for another writer Cane’s “dissolving views recently imported from England” were hugely enjoyable because he could relate to them personally, since he too had come to Australia on a long sea voyage. Despite his present geographical distance from home he could still weave the lantern images into his own feelings of British loyalty. But as a colonist he also took exception to being fobbed off with views that reinforced his sense of distance from the motherland, rather than shrinking that distance. His experience therefore became a kind of emotional push and pull:
“‘A ship in a calm’ was a particularly truthful representation of that most tedious, most trying, most wretched predicament. Gazing at the view, one might almost fancy one saw the lazy sharks crawling about in the blue water, […] Then suddenly the scene changed, the ship is caught in a storm, and with double-reefed foresail only set, struggles vainly against the furious surge, which too fatally drives her onto the inexorable rock. These two representations of the chances of the ocean were followed by “the ship on fire”, and “the raft”, and elicited several rounds of applause, especially from the juvenile portion of the audience, who, with true British feeling, seemed to delight in the danger, although “twas but in show. […] A very interesting picture of Balmoral Castle, her Majesty”s residence in the Scottish highland, was followed by ‘Windsor Castle’. Both these views were good; the former having a peculiar interest from the associations connected with the mountain glens where the most popular and most worthy of England”s sovereigns loves to breathe the free air for a season, and take rest from the cares of state. […] a variety of other very good views passed before our eye in rapid succession; among which we must not forget to mention a scene representing “Summer”, which was dissolved into “Winter”, (same subject) and that again into a snowstorm, which, whatever might be its merit, appeared to the Australian spectator somewhat outré. A variety of chromatropes ensued, the exhibition concluding with very so-so portraits of Her Majesty and Prince Albert, evidently painted shortly after the year one. Considering the immense number of excellent recent representations of the Royal Pair which exist, we really think something better than a cold delineation of ‘Victoria and Albert in their honeymoon days,’ in ‘their hey-day of youth,”‘might have been presented to Her Majesty”s loyal lieges of Australia.”
In 1855 the journalist James Smith developed this sense of transport in an exhibition he grandly titled the Cosmopoligraphicon, which was very unusual for sustaining a six-week season in Melbourne. Smith’s hand-painted slides of European travel scenes were rear-projected, so the apparatus itself wasn’t part of the spectacle, and the sequence of slides was geographically ordered, smoothly narrated, and expertly propelled by music from a harmonium (which he called a megaphonicon). The audience settled down for a sustained period of attention during which they cultivated their homesickness.
Seven years earlier, at Sydney’s Royal Victoria Theatre, J W Newland had shown various views of European cathedrals and other sites, as had Alfred Cane at Sydney’s Royal Hotel four years later. But in Melbourne Smith organised his dissolving views into a grand tour:
“What need of travel, when the results of travel are brought to your own door? Why endure the dust, heat, fatigue, vexations and extortions, the short sleep and the long bills of foreign inns, the garrulous twaddle of the ciceroni, and “all the thousand ills which travellers are heir to,” when you can sit in a cosy seat, in a comfortable room, see all the best “bits” of continental scenery produced before your eyes.”
His first view was the church of St. Hilders, Paris, shown empty. Then the dissolving apparatus and the megaphonicon began to work their magic:
” … a general air of repose diffused throughout the whole edifice; a shadow and a dimness passes over it, the pealing organ is heard reverberating through the long-drawn aisles, which are now seen to be alive with people – the priests in their episcopal robes, and the congregation paying their reverence to the host.”
His performances re-connected his audience to Europe through such fantasised content, but they also conjured, at least to newspaper reviewers, effulgent personal reveries of cultivated homesickness:
“Some of [the views] called up pleasurable recollections of the past, and revived associations that memory has made very dear,… How humanizing – how soul-purifying, and how it wakes from torpor our better nature, and makes us divest ourselves of the selfish cynicism with which we are prone to enwrap ourselves. Who, we ask, could see that old village church, with its winter dress, and not think of the bright calm December Sunday morning that he has walked up the pathway to the portal with some dear form that now lies cold beneath its walls? The hymn that seems to peal from the open latticed windows is the one in which he has so often joined, and, anon, as night steals over the coldly quiet scene, and the light streams from the diamond panes, he thinks himself in the old pew in the corner and forgets that sixteen thousand miles of ocean are rolling between him and that beloved spot he never may see again?”
But not only did Smith’s audience reconnect with home through the content of his projections, they were also able to self-consciously compare the experience they were having, in Melbourne in 1855, with the experience that may be being had by others, at the same time, back in Britain; or the experience they remembered having before they had left Britain to emigrate to Australia. Smith himself had previous experience as a writer, editor and public lecturer in Britain before he emigrated, and the Melbourne Cosmopoligraphicon may have featured slides painted by the English miniature painter Walter Francis Tiffin because, as opposed to Alfred Cane’s slides with their dark skies, the high quality of Smith’s slides was immediately noted:
“The excellence of their workmanship is most exquisite, both as to composition, effect and colouring; and they are, it may safely be asserted, of a character infinitely superior to anything that has been exhibited on this side of the equator.”
Colonial reviewers assessed their experience of the magic lantern in a global context. The Cosmopoligraphicon was, to use a phrase which was to become overused in twentieth century Australian culture, ‘world class’:
“Such of us as have lately dwelt in the modern Babylon have most pleasant reminiscences in connection with these sources of recreation, and we feel a glow of unfeigned pleasure in the opportunity that is now presented of renewing these yet vivid impressions of enjoyment, and in comprehending new joys of a like nature.”
“[For] those of us who retain a vivid recollection of the wonders of the London Polytechnic, this exhibition will not in any way suffer by comparison. […] to those who have not had an opportunity of observing the immense improvement which has been effected in this branch of art during the last few years, these pictures will appear truly astonishing.”
“The Cosmopoligraphicon, as a place of entertainment, is a most valuable addition to our places of amusement. There is nothing in the attractions it offers that the most refined taste can object to, but on the contrary, much that will help to compensate our fellow-colonists for the elegant places of public entertainment to which they relinquished their opportunities of access when they quitted Europe.”
Smug and pompous reassurances such as these undergirded the internal emotional transport of the exhibition with an imagined network of global citizens, securely gridded together across both imperial geography and imperial history.
By the 1860s the lantern was regularly taking audiences on intercontinental journeys. Lantern shows bridged the geographical distance between Australia and the mother country in imaginatively collapsing space, but they also united the colony and the mother country in their joint technological progress through historical time. After experiencing “the pair of magnificent apparatus [which] astonished and charmed a town hall full of people” on a night in 1868, a Melbourne writer mused on how far the magic lantern had come, both through the temporal space of technical progress and the geographical space of the Empire, since the “galantee showmen” of his British youth, when:
“the exhibition, although thought so highly of then, was in truth but a very simple and unpretending affair, consisting only of a white sheet pinned against the wall, on which were revealed in dim and misty outline a few rude subjects, generally of the coarsely comic order”, but now, after the advances represented by the Polytechnic, “the lantern was able to illustrate the most striking features presented to the voyager on the long route overland from Southampton to Calcutta. Most of these views are admirably painted, and have besides the merit of being exact portraitures of the places they represent. We may specially instance the views of Cintra, Malta, Boulac, the dead camel in the desert, Joseph”s well, Cairo, Mocha, and Pondicherry.”
The lantern pacified and shaped Australian audiences, as it did audiences everywhere. It trained them to politely sit together, shoulder to shoulder in the dark. Their collective reward was to be taken on virtual voyages back to the worlds they had left behind. After the show they could reflect on their experience, and compare it to the experience they imagined others were having across the globe. Australian audiences were pioneers in more ways than one, they were at the outer edge of empire, and they were at the outer edge of a globalised, technologised experience.
‘The Tri-Unial lantern illuminated with the Oxy-Hydrogen Light, in the Hall of the Balmain School of Arts.’ Catalogue of Optical Lanterns and Transparent Views, with the newest forms of Bi-unial and Tri-unial Dissolving View Apparatus, by William MacDonnell, Sydney, 1882
Joseph Fowles, ‘Interior of the Royal Victoria Theatre, Sydney’, Sydney in 1848 Illustrated with copperplate engravings of the principal streets, public building, churches, chapels etc, from drawing by Joseph Fowles, J Fowles, Sydney, 1848
S T Gill, ‘Dress Circle boxes Queens Theatre, Lucky Diggers in Melbourne, 1853’, watercolour, 1880. State Library of Victoria.
‘Limelight successes in the far north. Captain Perry Takes the Cake and Shuts Up a Crowd of Theatricals.’, The War Cry, Melbourne, 14 December 1895, p6.
 For a discussion of the magic lantern in Australia in the early twentieth century see: Martyn Jolly, “Soldiers of the Cross: Time, Narrative and Affect”, Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 11, no. 4, (2013): 293-311. For an overview of the magic lantern in Australia see: Elizabeth Hartrick, The Magic Lantern in Colonial Australia and New Zealand (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publications, 2017).
 Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, (12 September 1835): 3.
 Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, (15 April 1846): 2.
 South Australian Register, (19 January 1848): 3.
 Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, (6 August1848): 2
 The Courier, (Hobart) (8 September 1854): 2.
 Sydney Herald Monday, (2 November 1835): 1.
 Sydney Morning Herald, (14 September 1844): 4, (12 October 1844): 1.
 Eric Irvin, Dictionary of the Australia Theatre 1788-1914, (Sydney: Hale & Iremonger, 1985), 33-34. Philip Parsons and Victoria Chance (ed.) Companion to the Theatre in Australian, (Sydney, Currency Press, 1995) pp65-66.
 Sydney Morning Herald, (4 May 1848): 1.
 The South Australian Register, (26 October 1864): 2.
 Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Saturday, (25 December 1830): 2.
 The research into this rich field of colonial modernity has only just begun, see: Mimi Colligan, Canvas Documentaries: Panoramic Entertainments in Nineteenth Century Australia and New Zealand, (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002). Anita Calloway, Visual Ephemera: Theatrical Art in Nineteenth Century Australia, (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2000). Elizabeth Hartrick, The Magic Lantern in Colonial Australia and New Zealand, (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publications, 2017).
 South Australian Register, (16 November 1865): 2, (26 December 1865): 3.
 South Australian Register, (31 August 1861): 3, (14 September 1866): 3.
 Morning Bulletin, (Rockhampton) (21 April 1882): p2.
 The Argus, (4 November 1909): 8.
 The South Australian, (23 April 1847): 3.
 The South Australian Register, (13 November 1847): 3.
 Freeman’s Journal, (5 February 1852):10.
 The Courier, (Adelaide), (8 September 1854): 2.
 Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, (9 August 1848): 2.
 Freeman’s Journal, (November 23 1859): 4.
 Freeman’s Journal, (24 September 1853): 10.
 South Australian Register, (18 November 1891): 2.
 South Australian Weekly Chronicle, (10 September 1881): 1. South Australian Register, (28 July 1885): 7. The South Australian, (25 May 1887): 6.
 The Sydney Morning Herald, (30 January 1852): 2.
 The Age, (9 May, 1855): 6.
 The Age, (9 May 1855): 6.
 The Age, (9 May 9, 1855): 6.
 The Age, (May 3, 1855): 6. Elizabeth Hartrick, 56.
 The Age, (3 May 1855): 6.
 The Argus, (30 April 1855): 6.
 The Age, (9 May 1855): 6.
 The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian, (18 July 1868): 2.