The magic lantern at the edge of empire.The experience of dissolving views and phantasmagoria in colonial Australia

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.[1]


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)”.[2]

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.”[3]


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.”[4]

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.[5] 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.”[6]

Audience behaviour

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”.[7] 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.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10]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”.[11]

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”.[12] 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.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] And in 1909 exploding lantern set the Casterton Christ Church Hall on fire.[17]

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”.[18] 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.”[19]

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”.[20]

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.”[21]


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.”[22] 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.”[23]


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”.[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]


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.”[27]

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.”[28]

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.”[29]

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?”[30]


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.”[31]

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.”[32]

“[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.”[33]

“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.”[34]

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.”[35]


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.

Martyn Jolly

[1] 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).

[2] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, (12 September 1835): 3.

[3] Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, (15 April 1846): 2.

[4] South Australian Register, (19 January 1848): 3.

[5] Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, (6 August1848): 2

[6] The Courier, (Hobart) (8 September 1854): 2.

[7] Sydney Herald Monday, (2 November 1835): 1.

[8] Sydney Morning Herald, (14 September 1844): 4, (12 October 1844): 1.

[9] 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.

[10] Sydney Morning Herald, (4 May 1848): 1.

[11] The South Australian Register, (26 October 1864): 2.

[12] Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser Saturday, (25 December 1830): 2.

[13] 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).

[14]  South Australian Register, (16 November 1865): 2, (26 December 1865): 3.

[15]  South Australian Register, (31 August 1861): 3, (14 September 1866): 3.

[16]  Morning Bulletin, (Rockhampton) (21 April 1882): p2.

[17] The Argus, (4 November 1909): 8.

[18] The South Australian, (23 April 1847): 3.

[19] The South Australian Register, (13 November 1847): 3.

[20] Freeman’s Journal, (5 February 1852):10.

[21] The Courier, (Adelaide), (8 September 1854): 2.

[22] Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser, (9 August 1848): 2.

[23] Freeman’s Journal, (November 23 1859): 4.

[24] Freeman’s Journal, (24 September 1853): 10.

[25] South Australian Register, (18 November 1891): 2.

[26] South Australian Weekly Chronicle, (10 September 1881): 1. South Australian Register, (28 July 1885): 7. The South Australian, (25 May 1887): 6.

[27] The Sydney Morning Herald, (30 January 1852): 2.

[28] The Age, (9 May, 1855): 6.

[29] The Age, (9 May 1855): 6.

[30] The Age, (9 May 9, 1855): 6.

[31] The Age, (May 3, 1855): 6. Elizabeth Hartrick, 56.

[32] The Age, (3 May 1855): 6.

[33] The Argus, (30 April 1855): 6.

[34] The Age, (9 May 1855): 6.

[35]  The Telegraph, St Kilda, Prahran and South Yarra Guardian, (18 July 1868): 2.

Free Download! ‘Frontier and Metropole, Science and Colonisation: The Systematic Exhibitions of Richard Daintree’

Daintree detail

Figure 21. Detail from Centennial Photographic Company, Philadelphia International Exhibition, ‘Queensland Court, Philadelphia ’76, Evening Before Opening’, 1876.


Richard Daintree is well known as an Australian colonial photographer and geologist. I look at six international exhibitions he created from 1872 to 1879 that promoted the colony of Queensland by systematically integrating spectacular grids of painted photographs with displays of scientific samples. By analysing installation views, I argue that the popular success of these exhibitions came from the use of various new photographic technologies within the space of the exhibition, where the frontier directly interacted with the metropole. Further, I argue that Daintree’s personal passion for the science of geology profoundly structured the colonialist narrative of his exhibitions, which combined the latest apparatuses of scientific knowledge and imperial communication, revealing him to be an innovative and internationally significant creator of synthesised exhibitionary experiences.

Martyn Jolly (2020): Frontier and Metropole, Science and Colonisation: The Systematic Exhibitions of Richard Daintree, History of Photography Journal.

The apparatuses of science, entertainment and belief in colonial Australia

The paper I read and powerpoint I showed at the conference Imagineers in Circus and Science: Scientific Knowledge and Creative Imagination, ANU, 3-5 April, convened by Dr Anna-Sophie Jürgens


The 1870s was a big decade for the colony of Victoria. The money flowing from the gold fields had led to rapid growth in its size and sophistication. By the early 1870s passengers could reach Melbourne from England in as little as two months, and Morse code messages could be relayed from London in just seven hours. Victorian colonists were feeling themselves more connected to the rest of the world than ever before. They too were part of the tension between traditional religion and the great scientific discoveries of the nineteenth century. They too craved novelty and modern experience. But their place in the world meant that they engaged with these ideas in ways that were distinctly their own. During the decade three events cast emerging ideas of ‘science’, ‘belief’, ‘entertainment’ and ‘technology’ into new configurations for the colonists of Victoria.


Modern Spiritualism, the belief that human personality survived beyond death and that the dead could communicate with the living, was an integral part of the general foment of 1870s Victoria. It was part of the broader Free Thought movement, reconciling the terrifying divisions that seemed to be opening up between religion and science.

In the powerful experience of the séance the Spiritualist believer, suffering from what psychologists would now call apophenia, or cognitive confirmation bias, was gradually enmeshed into a seductive relationship with a ‘medium’, who used techniques of misdirection learnt from stage magic to convince them of what they wanted to believe — that their dead could return to them.

In 1870 William Terry opened a shop as a bookseller, Spiritualist medium, and magnetic healer. Customers could buy imported herbs for the ailments which Terry had clairvoyantly diagnosed, they could buy the latest copies of spiritualist journals and pamphlets published in Australia or imported from the US and the UK, and they could buy factual evidence of Spiritual truths in the form of carte de visite spirit photographs.

Spiritualists thought they were at the forefront of progress, leading the way for the rest of the world. They embraced rational scientific methods, which they thought were equivalent to the methods that were leading to the other great technological breakthroughs of the age. Terry claimed that:

spiritual intercourse can be proved as conclusively as telegraphic communication, postal delivery, or any other fact know to one section of the world’s inhabitants, and not to others.

In late 1873 visitors to Terry’s shop may have perused the latest copy of the London magazine The Spiritualist and read that the medium Florence Cook, a young girl of 17, had produced what was known as a ‘full body materialization’ of the spirit Katie King. Florence materialized the Spirit at a séance while supposedly entranced and tied to a chair in a curtained-off cabinet. On 7 May the spirit was photographed by the ignition of magnesium powder. The Spiritualist reproduced an engraving produced directly from one of the photographs. The magazine advised its readers:

The efforts of the experimentalists have been successful, and the large engraving […] is about a faithful a copy as wood-cutting can give […] In the photograph itself the features are more detailed and beautiful, and there is an expression of dignity and ethereality in the face, which is not fully represented in the engraving, which, however, has been executed as nearly as possible with scientific accuracy, by an artist of great professional skill.

There was at least one enthusiastic Melbourne reader of this amazing account. He was William Denovan, a successful gold miner, parliamentarian and chairman of a séance circle in Bendigo called The Energetic Circle. There were many séances held in the goldfields during this period. They successfully produced Spiritualistic phenomena because, it was reasoned, the deposits of quartz running underground along the veins of gold were acting as crystal concentrators for spiritual forces.

As the Energetic Circle held hands, prayed, and sung hymns, they slowly began to experience more and more manifestations of spirit communication. After a period, the male medium began to levitate, they smelled delicious perfume, felt cool breezes, and spirit lights appeared. Then the sitters began to brushed by spirit lips and spirit hands, then they began to see disembodied arms. Then, finally, in June 1874, the Bendigo female medium fully materialized the beautiful spirit Katie King, almost a year after she had been photographed in London. She stood in the middle of the séance room illuminated only by the dying embers of the fire, and clothed head to foot in ‘robes of white muslin or gauze’. Denovan marveled how:

… those who saw the face of Katie King on Sunday evening state that she wore a turban on her head just as she appears in the photograph of her published in the London Spiritualist of the 15th of May 1873. […] The face appeared to some of swarthy colour, to others fair, with fair hair, and parted down the middle; but to me it appeared copper coloured, with drapery round it and over the head similar to the photograph of Mrs MacDougal Gregory, of London, and her spirit sister. […] as [Katie] made herself visible to all present — distinctly and unmistakably visible — all became deeply impressed, and several sobbed audibly. None who were present will ever forget what they saw on this occasion, and the feeling of solemnity and awe to which the sight gave rise, and all inwardly offered up their thanks to Almighty God for his goodness in thus having by his great natural laws vouchsafed to them by positive demonstration, the reality of another life. It was a solemn yet joyous moment never to be forgotten by those who witnessed it. And it is just the beginning.

But Denovan and his circle hadn’t only witnessed a modern miracle, they had witnessed it in Bendigo. The Spirit of Katie had instantaneously travelled to where the mediumistic power was concentrated. Denovan declared:

I have now the satisfaction of informing you that we have no need to go to England or America to see the spirits in mortal from, as they are here in our midst.

To you or I, the fact that the materializations in Bendigo wore the same style of drapery as seen in the photographs and magazines sold in Terry’s shop may be evidence that the huckster mediums were simply copying the photographs. But to the Spiritualist believers it was corroborative. It was powerful proof that it was the actual Katie King they were seeing, who was able to travel from a séance in London to a séance in Bendigo even faster than an electric telegraph message.

While these extraordinary Bendigo visions were being reported, a new spirit photograph was also being discussed in Melbourne. The Melbourne Spiritualist Dr Walter Lindesay Richardson had attended a photographic séance in London. He wrote back to Victoria:

… a draped figure projected itself beside my likeness. I send you specimens. During the process [the photographer] afforded me every facility for scrutiny, allowing me to clean the glasses myself, to follow them through several stages, and to see them developed.

Terry tried to wrap his head around exactly what he was seeing:

… a Gothic chair is standing before the sitter with its back in close proximity to his knees; a female figure which is kneeling in front of him seems to permeate the chair, portions of the chair being visible through the form, as though the matter of the chair offered no obstruction to the more refined material of the Spirit form

So, this form must be a transition stage to full materialization.

As far as we understand it, the Materialized Spirit form which appears on these occasions, is a condensation of sublimated matter, brought about by a scientific process known to Spirits who have studied Chemistry. The power used is Electricity, brought to bear through the magnetic emanations of the Medium.

Professor Pepper’s Scientific Festivals

One of the major figures of the London entertainment scene was Professor Henry Pepper who had become synonymous with the popular Royal Polytechnic Institution. In the 1850s and 60s Pepper developed a spectacular lecturing style incorporating many new ‘scientific’ entertainments that demonstrated the principals of physics, chemistry and optics, while also feeding the audience’s appetite for illusion, wonder, and even the occult.

At the Polytechnic he patented an illusion that directly fed into the public’s appetite for gothic and spiritualist effects. The ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ illusion required the use of a new technology developed for shop windows, plate glass, and a magic lantern. The angled glass reflected a concealed figure brightly lit against a black background, while the audience could still see the scene behind the glass. As the original inventor of the illusion said:

Mesmerism throughout all its harlequinade, down to its present disguise under spiritualism or spirit rapping … has never had nerve enough or nous enough to produce such thorough full-length ghosts as are now every day to be seen.

Pepper’s Ghost was both a theatrical illusion and a scientific curiosity at the same time. In one of the first illustrations of the illusion Professor Pepper himself stands off to one side, observing the materialization with cool detachment. Pepper was therefore caught in a paradox. He needed to protect the secret of his illusions to maintain audience interest, but to also be a ‘scientific’ professor he needed, at some point, to explain the scientific principles behind the illusion.

Pepper eventually left the Polytechnic, but increasingly found it hard to get audiences. There was even criticism of what had come to be seen as his ‘ponderous and didactic’ delivery style. He developed another mirror illusion, the Metempsychosis. But even this wasn’t enough to revive Pepper’s flagging British career so, in 1879, he decided to lecture in Australia.

He arrived with ‘a large amount of scientific exhibition apparatus and full staff of professional assistants’. ‘Pepper’s Scientific Festival’, billed as an ‘ILLUSORY ENTERTAINMENT’ featured all of his Polytechnic hits, with the added excitement of an electric light. Like the many other touring celebrities, Pepper’s fame preceded him. Shortly after his arrival, Melbourne’s St Georges Hall was crammed with people ‘evidently anxious to hear the wonders of Nature unfolded and explained by the lecturer, who for more than a quarter of a century has amused and at the same time instructed thousands in London.’ Unlike in London, where his oratorical style had seemed ponderous and didactic, in Melbourne, ‘[h]is luminous and genial mode of elucidating the various phenomena which he exhibited rendered the lecture a genuine treat.’

Judging by newspaper reviews, for his new audiences Pepper was able to rebalance the tension between ‘illusion to entertain’ and ‘illusion to demonstrate scientific truths’. On the one hand ‘one might be tempted to believe that he possessed supernatural powers’. On the other hand ‘[he] is a man of science [who recognises] that the time has passed when the secrets of nature were explained only in the cloister’.

Some even recognized that Pepper’s doubling of the idea of ‘the marvelous’ could be a weapon against the errors of Spiritualism. The journalist Marcus Clarke wrote:

[A]mid the nonsense being talked and written on all sides concerning “Spiritualism” and miraculous intervention, it might be a good thing if the Government would suffer the children it educates to see some of the marvels which can be produced by human ingenuity. A course of Pepper would give a tone to the youthful stomach, and brace it to the withstanding of tales of dancing tables and hovering apparitions of dead children.


Pepper’s arrival was greeted with well-orchestrated fanfare. However, the press noted:

Not that we have no scientific men amongst us; on the contrary, they are as plentiful as in other civilized lands; but our scientists have neither the time nor the opportunity of coming before the public as Professor Pepper does in the cause of natural philosophy.

This comment must have come as an insult to the Royal Society of Victoria, which had in fact been promoting science to the public since the early 1870s. They had even held a ‘conversazione’ a year before Pepper arrived. Conversazioni were mixtures of entertainment and education, where gentlemen and ladies could promenade, have hands-on interactions with new technologies, listen to lectures, and talk to individual ‘proficients’ who were drawn from science, academia, government and commerce.

At each conversazione the President of the Royal Society summed up the previous year’s progress in colonial science. In 1878 he commented on the pace of technological change:

In my last address I referred […] to the then recent invention of the telephone. Since then this wonderful little instrument has been greatly improved, and is now in actual use in Melbourne, not only as a scientific toy, but as a means of communication. We had no sooner become familiar with the telephone than we were astounded by accounts of a still more wonderful apparatus, the ‘phonograph’, […] Still later we heard of the ‘microphone’ […] although their practical applications are as yet limited, there can be but little doubt that they will eventually become of great value […].

Two years later he noted approvingly that the sophistication of the colonists was keeping pace with this heady technological change:

… the subject of science attracts in this community the same keen attention, and is pursued with the same ardour, given to it in all intelligent communities. We are at least able to show that the intellect of the colony perceives the importance of scientific investigation; that the Government and the public are liberal in its support …

But people went to conversazioni to see inventions. In 1878 a phonograph played Rule Britannia and He’s a Jolly Good Fellow which ‘sounded as if it was being sung by an old man of 80 with a cracked voice.’

The phoneidoscope reproduced the vibrations of words sung into its mouthpiece as an ‘an endless variety of exquisite designs, resembling those observed in the ordinary kaleidoscope’, on a film of soap water and glycerine.

The microphone, powered by a galvanic battery, amplified the sounds of a telephone so that a ‘[t]he ticking of a watch could be heard at the other end of the room.’ Ammonia gas was liquefied under pressure, and microscopes showed rock sections, algae and invertebrates from across the colony, while the siren produced ‘melancholy and discordant’ sounds throughout the night.

In his address the President of the Society had speculated about the future offered by these inventions. But, once they had tried them themselves, the ordinary visitor to the conversazione found they could speculate about the future just as well as he could. The ‘remarkable nature’ of the displays ‘was productive of much wonderment’, but they also ‘gave rise to varied speculation as to their ultimate development’.

1000 people, including many ladies, attended the 1879 conversazione. An Edison phonograph was displayed, and a working printing press. But the magic lantern was the central apparatus. Amongst other things, the magic lantern showed some striking experiments with vortex rings and astronomical views.

Many of the ladies and gentlemen caught in the newspaper illustrations of 1880 look remarkably contemporary, like customers at an Apple Store Genius Bar, as they confidently manipulate the various devices on offer. Technology had gone from ‘philosophical toy’ to ‘personal device’


The people in these three case studies thought they had very little in common with each other. Although he flirted with the occult, Professor Pepper ultimately regarded the Spiritualists as gullible dupes. He and his audience knew that his illusions were just that — illusions — and that if he chose to, he could scientifically explain how they were created. If you had asked them, the members of the Royal Society would have most probably looked down on Pepper’s broadly popular audience. To these middle class consumers of knowledge, science didn’t need Professor Pepper’s carnival effects. To them the effects of science were being felt in the actual utilitarianness of its inventions, which were usefully recording invisible phenomena such as sound or performing real actions at a distance.

At face value these three case studies could therefore be seen to be following a familiar developmental trajectory: from the observer being tricked by hucksters into believing something that isn’t true, and in any case is no longer necessary; to observers willing ‘suspending disbelief’ for the duration of a scientific entertainment, and experiencing an occult illusion in order to have it deconstructed into its scientifically knowable components; to, finally, observers becoming individual operators of new technologies, and rehearsing their forthcoming role as consumers of technological devices as future customers of Bell Telephones, IBM, and Apple.

It is tempting to see a millennium’s worth of progress refracted into the decade. But although we can easily arrange these case studies into a single developmental line, we can also arrange them into at least two different constellations that are perhaps more illuminating.

The first constellation is phenomenological. Although there are epistemological differences between the three case studies, there are also deep phenomenological similarities. There is an identical sensation of science that persists through the arc of progress. Through seeing Spirits with their own eyes, and then correlating their vision with the photographic proofs sent from England, the Spiritualists knew the truth of Spirit return. Through having their eyes willingly ‘tricked’ by Pepper’s machinery and then being shown how it ‘really’ worked, attendees at Pepper’s shows felt they knew a little bit more about the nature of light and reflection. By placing their mouth to the mouthpiece, or their ear to the earpiece, or their eye to the eyepiece, and then seeing, hearing or feeling the invisible, conversazioni participants felt the future enter their own bodies.

In each case a single observer is instantiated as the ground for belief and understanding. To reach forward into a future where they would routinely converse with the dead, as the Spiritualists expected; or routinely call each other up on the telephone, as visitors to the conversazioni expected, each visitor was asked to stand on no other evidential ground than themselves. But in each case, the human test subject of perception is only instantiated through, and within, the apparatus.

The second constellation is geographical. It interests me that all of the experiences from my three case studies are in some sense ‘airy’. They happen up in the air in some virtual space in front of the observer, which is sort of still ‘in Victoria in the 1870s’, but sort of ‘all over the world’ as well. And all of my examples — spirit materializations, wonderful illusions straight from London, telephones, microphones and phonographs — collapse time and space. Although they were seven hours ‘behind’ via the telegraph, or two months ‘behind’ by ship, in some sense these colonial audiences were ‘ahead’ of the rest of the world in this new experience of the globe. I think that the experiences of instantaneity, simultaneity, immediacy and proximity were more powerful for colonial audiences, who were part of the same currents of modernity as everyone else, but who joined hands in Bendigo, or bought a ticket to St Georges Hall or attended a conversazione, in Melbourne, at the outer edge of the modern world itself.

Martyn Jolly