Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - August 2017

Magic lantern slide series: "Jane Conquest"

Magic lantern slide 'Jane Conquest' series

August's Object of the Month was chosen by Olivia, our work experience student. The object in question is a series of magic lantern slides entitled “Jane Conquest” from the 1890s. Magic lanterns, formerly known as optical lanterns, provided one of the most popular forms of entertainment during the 1700s and 1800s, establishing many of the first 2-D special effects.

First documented in the 1600s as simple projecting devices developed by European inventors, early magic lantern slides were hand-painted on glass or created using a transfer method to reproduce many copies of a single etching or print. Hand colouring required additional skilled labour, space and tools.  Its relationship to painting on china and glass meant that women usually performed the skilled labour.

Until the second half of the 1700s, magic lanterns were mostly used by scientists, but the beginning of the 1800s marked a shift in purpose for magic lanterns as showmen travelled around the country displaying lantern collections as a form of entertainment. These were known as ‘Galantee’ showmen and they would give shows by projecting on walls or white sheets. The subjects would probably relate to Biblical, moral and current events, and the showman would create stories for any children watching.

The most popular slides in the late 1800s were those termed ‘life model slides’. These were photographic slides on which costumed actors posed in scenes or on locations to illustrate songs, moral tales, sentimental stories, narratives or other texts. The slides were commonly sold in boxes, along with a booklet from which the story or verse was read aloud. Sets ranged from as many as sixty to as few as two slides.

‘Jane Conquest', this month's object, is a well-known set of ‘life model slides’ illustrating a narrative poem by James Milne of Newcastle, originally published in The Methodist Family in 1874, called ‘How Jane Conquest Rang the Bell’. This set of 16 tinted slides, all 8.2 cm square, depicts the Christmas fable of a woman facing a moral dilemma concerning her dangerously ill newborn child and the lives of the crew of a ship in flames.Magic lantern slide

The deep pinks, lively blues and striking drawings of ‘Jane Conquest’ blend seamlessly with the black and white photographic stills that act as the fable’s skeleton. This combination of illustration and life model slides creates an almost dream-like world whereby the audience’s fears and hopes are anchored. My favourite slide of the collection is an illustration depicting the sinking ship. The powerful imagery of the flames and the sea echo the following extract from the original poem: “And the night was like a sunset, and the sea like a sea of blood, And the rocks and shore were bathed all o'er as by some gory flood.” Lantern slides are almost always accompanied by a line of description on their sides which would be used to narrate the story. This slide’s description reads “She saw a gallant ship” which alludes to the bravery of the sailors and the magnificent sight of the storm.Top view of "Jane Conquest" set of lantern slides

In the 1880s and 1890s, over thirty firms were engaged in the production of lanterns and slides in London alone, as companies such as Bamforth produced sets for every occasion and location. Bamforth of Holmfirth, Yorkshire, specialised in life model slides and by 1900 was one of the largest magic lantern manufacturers in the world as a result of the company’s New York extension. ‘Jane Conquest’ dates from around the 1890s, and this leads us to believe that Bamforth is likely to have produced this set.

Unfortunately, magic lantern slides reached the peak of their popularity during the first third of the 20th century and since new photographic film emerged in the 1930s and 1940s they have disappeared from the film scene. Nowadays they are occasionally found in private collections and auctions. Tunbridge Wells Museum’s magic lantern collection is invaluable because it creates an opportunity for the historic and cultural importance of magic lanterns to be recognised and commemorated – something they rightly deserve.

Olivia says: 'I chose this magic lantern set as my Object of the Month because I believe their contribution to the development of modern media and entertainment as we know it today is overlooked in the film and photography community. They dramatically impacted the evolution of animation technologies as well as visual-based education methods in areas such as anthropology, art history, and geography. The use of colour in ‘Jane Conquest’ caught my attention in particular; I challenge any contemporary filmmaker to replicate such detail and brilliance.'

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