From the Royal Albert Hall to the Victorian Home: The Many Uses of the Magic Lantern

September 4, 2017

This is one of a series of blog posts by students of the V&A/RCA History of Design MA programme, written to accompany the ‘Building the Royal Albert Hall’ display at the V&A in Room 127 (the entrance to the Architecture Gallery) until 7 January 2018.

Following on from the frieze around the 244 metre circumference of the Royal Albert Hall and the role of Sergeant Benjamin L. Spackman, the Royal Engineer working at the South Kensington Museum, this post by Guglielmo Rossi explores the role played by magic lanterns as essential instruments in the process of designing and executing the frieze.  Central to the visual culture of the period, magic lanterns also reflect the close connections between science, technology and the production of images at the time.

Exterior view of the South Kensington Museum (the 'Brompton Boilers') under construction with Sergeant Benjamin L. Spackman in the foreground
Photograph of the exterior view of the South Kensington Museum (the ‘Brompton Boilers’) under construction with Sergeant Benjamin L. Spackman in the foreground, 1856 (V&A 34967)

In the mid-nineteenth-century various different lamps were produced to copy, reproduce, and enlarge images and drawings. Spackman employed the lantern as an enlarger: he photographed the preparatory drawings for the frieze, then projected them on paper so that they could be re-drawn to the correct scale in order to produce the tiles for the mosaic. Each enlarged artwork took nine sheets of paper. The full design was made of sixteen original drawings and each drawing was enlarged to be about 15 metres long.

The lantern used by Spackman was one of a range of optical tools available on the market. Enlarging lanterns had an apparatus that required light to be registered in the correct position on the condenser, a strong negative holder, and the lens to be centred so that it would take up all the rays. Others could be mounted upon wheels in order to alter the distance from the projection screen. Depending on how far away it was, the projected picture could expand to a gigantic size or contract into a luminous spot.

Different types of Lanterns
Different types of lanterns. Double lanterns (centre) made it possible to animate the fading of images, showing the first image disappearing as it was replaced by the following one. Triple lanterns (right) offered a spare model in case of technical problems.
Image sourced from T. C. Hepworth ‘The Book of the Lantern. Being a Practical Guide to the Working of the Optical (or Magic) Lantern’ (1888).

In addition to its use as a technical tool, the magic lantern was also employed as an image projector for instruction or leisure, in public and private. Although it was originally invented in the seventeenth century (commonly described as the latest form of the camera obscura), it evolved alongside new technologies for the production of light and remained extremely popular until the turn of the twentieth century, when it slowly disappeared with the rise of cinema.

Its development is also associated with the different individuals who used and perfected it over time. The Belgian Jesuit priest, Athanasius Kircher, mentions the tool in his treatise ‘Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae’ (1646), and experiments were carried out even earlier by the Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens, Cornelis Drebbel, and by Giambattista della Porta in Italy between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. New forms of the lantern followed, marking new accomplishments. In 1826 the book entitled ‘The art of Projection and complete Magic Lantern Manual’ chronicled the use of a oxyhydrogen blowpipe with the addition of a ball of lime used for signalling up to a distance of 160 kilometres.

The invention and dissemination of photography marked another turning point in the history of magic lanterns, contributing to their popularity during Victorian times. The glass slides (or lantern transparencies) were printed from photographic negatives and were able to retain a sufficiently high level of detail to enable scientific rigour. At the same time, photography contributed to expand the range of subjects of the slides, and thanks to the growing demand for images, a new market for lantern slides emerged.

The Book of the Magic Lantern
T. C. Hepworth ‘The Book of the Lantern. Being a Practical Guide to the Working of the Optical (or Magic) Lantern’ (1888), the technical manual contains a section of advertisements promoting the sale and hire of lanterns, lenses and slides. The image on the right lists special lenses for ‘architecture and copying’; the image on the left lists common subjects available for slides. Slides for lectures and conferences were frequently hired and often accompanied by small explanatory booklets.

During the nineteenth century, still employed as a tool for entertainment in theatres and providing a visual complement to performances, the magic lantern was also adopted for educational purposes, to engage audiences during lectures at the London Polytechnic. Together with universities, lantern shows took place in churches and halls, and the variety of venues suggests that diverse audiences, of very different ages and social backgrounds, enjoyed the projections of illuminated pictures. Ultimately, towards the end of the century, the magic lantern was used as an advertising tool on the streets of city centres, projecting adverts for shops and products on building walls. In a domestic setting it was often found in the sitting rooms of the affluent to be used for home entertainment and toy versions were produced in great numbers for the children. Various examples can be found in the collections of the V&A Museum of Childhood.

Magic Lanterns from the Museum of Childhood
Top: Two views of a magic lantern with slides, ca. 1904, Museum number: MISC.80&1-13-1985
Bottom left: Optical toy manufactured by Carette in Germany, made of pressed metal, brass and glass, 1905–13. Museum number: MISC.67-1978
Bottom right: Optical toy manufactured by Ernst Planck in Germany, made of pressed steel, with celluloid film and glass slides. ca. 1900. Museum number: MISC.65 to C-1966
The Monarch Ethopticon Bi-Unial Magic Lantern
The Monarch Ethopticon Bi-Unial Magic Lantern, made in Bradford, England, by Riley Brothers in the 1880s. The Kodak Collection at the National Media Museum, Bradford.
Science Museum Group Collection (object number 1990-5036/7885)


Steve Humphries, Victorian Britain Through the Magic Lantern (London: Sidwick & Jackson, 1989)

Gian Piero Brunetta, Il viaggio dell’icononauta: dalla camera oscura di Leonardo alla luce dei Limiere (Venezia: Marsilio Editore, 1997)

T. C. Hepworth, F.C.S., The book of the lantern being a practical guide to the working of the optical (or magic) lantern (London, Wyman & Sons, 1888)

Paolo Bertetto, Donata Pesenti Campagnoni, La magia dell’immagine: macchine e spettacoli prima dei Lumière nelle collezioni del Museo nazionale del cinema (Milano: Electa, 1997)

The Art of Projection and complete Magic Lantern Manual by An Expert (London: E. A. Beckett, 1893)


About the author

September 4, 2017

I am Head of Early Modern Studies in the V&A's Research Institute (VARI). The History of Architecture and of Technology are my main research interests. Currently I am working on...

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1 comment so far, view or add yours


T. C. Hepworth, F.C.S., The book of the lantern being a practical guide to the working of the optical (or magic) lantern (London, Wyman & Sons, 1888). I will read book.

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