Letters of Natural Magic

Source: Sir David Brewster, extract from ‘Letter IV’, Letters on Natural Magic (London: Chatto & Windus, 1883 – orig. pub. 1831), pp. 158-159

Text: The power of the magic lantern has been greatly extended by placing it on one side of the transparent screen of taffetas which receives the images while the spectators are placed on the other side, and by making every part of the glass sliders opaque, excepting the part which forms the figures. Hence all the figures appear luminous on a black ground, and produce a much greater effect with the same degree of illumination. An exhibition depending on these principles was brought out by M. Philipstal in 1802 under the name of the Phantasmagoria, and when it was shown in London and Edinburgh it produced the most impressive effects upon the spectators. The small theatre of exhibition was lighted only by one hanging lamp, the flame of which was drawn up into an opaque chimney or shade when the performance began. In this “darkness visible” the curtain rose, and displayed a cave with skeletons and other terrific figures in relief upon its walls. The flickering light was then drawn up beneath its shroud, and the spectators, in total darkness, found themselves in the middle of thunder and lightning. A thin transparent screen had, unknown to the spectators, been let down after the disappearance of the light, and upon it the flashes of lightning and all the subsequent appearances were represented. This screen being half-way between the spectators and the cave which was first shown, and being itself invisible, prevented the observers from having any idea of the real distance of the figures, and gave them the entire character of aerial pictures. The thunder and lightning were followed by the figures of ghosts, skeletons, and known individuals, whose eyes and mouth were made to move by the shifting of combined slides. After the first figure had been exhibited for a short time, it began to grow less and less, as if removed to a great distance, and at last vanished in a small cloud of light. Out of this same cloud the germ of another figure began to appear, and gradually grew larger and larger, and approached the spectators till it attained its perfect development. In this manner, the head of Dr. Franklin was transformed into a skull; figures which retired with the freshness of life came back in the form of skeletons, and the retiring skeletons returned in the drapery of flesh and blood.

The exhibition of these transmutations was followed by spectres, skeletons, and terrific figures, which, instead of receding and vanishing as before, suddenly advanced upon the spectators, becoming larger as they approached them, and finally vanished by appearing to sink into the ground. The effect of this part of the exhibition was naturally the most impressive. The spectators were not only surprised but agitated, and many of them were of opinion that they could have touched the figures. M. Robertson, at Paris, introduced along with his pictures the direct shadows of living objects, which imitated coarsely the appearance of those objects in a dark night or in moonlight.

Comments: Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) was a British scientists and inventor with a particular interest in optics. The Phantasmagoria was a combination of the magic lantern, back projection, mobile machinery and lighting effects to create ghostly apparitions before an audience. It was first presented in Paris in the 1780s by Philidor, aka Paul Philipsthal, a German showman, and was copied by the Belgian Étienne-Gaspard ‘Robertson’ Robert at the end of the century. Philipsthal presented his Phantasmagoria at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1801. Though this is a famous account of the Phantasmagoria, Mervyn Heard, in his Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern (Hastings: The Projection Box, 2006) points out that is was adapted from an account by William Nicholson in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, February 1802 (see separate Picturegoing post).

Links: Copy at Internet Archive