The events of the past year have created what is probably the strangest run for any temporary exhibition the National Science and Media Museum has ever staged.
The Forgotten Showman: How Robert Paul Invented British Cinema originally opened on 22 November 2019 and was due to close on 29 March 2020. However, the museum temporarily closed in mid-March and the exhibition sat in the dark for a few months, reopening in August again for a few months to close again in December. Now, finally, nearly a year after it was planned to end, it will be deinstalled at the beginning of March 2021.
However, in that brief window in the autumn of 2020, we could open the doors again, but with some changes to make it safe for social distancing. The designers of the exhibition—Instruct, based in Manchester—were able to produce some suitably appropriate posters in keeping with their original design asking visitors to adhere to Covid-safe actions.
In addition, the August reopening allowed us to bring into the exhibition an object which had been rediscovered in the museum’s collection.
This object had been with us since 1913, but it was the research carried out for this exhibition which brought it back to our attention. And the break in the exhibition gave us the chance to display it.
Robert Paul had been loaning objects to the Science Museum (our sister museum) since the 1890s. In 1913, a number of film-related objects were donated. These included many already on display in this exhibition, such as the Theatrograph projector and the camera Paul used to film Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee procession in 1897.
Others remained in store, including this:
A frame which measures 33 x 66cm and contains bromide paper prints of 144 film frames, arranged in 24 rows of six. So far, so what, you may think—but these are all from Robert Paul films and, as we know, the vast majority of his films are lost.
We asked Robert Paul expert Ian Christie to take a look. He believes that at least 18 of these films are ones which were thought to be lost without a trace. As he said, ‘the quality of these images is so good you can really see detail’, which of course is crucial to identification.
These strips are only short portions of these films, which would only run for about a third of a second, but having such clear images may help film archivists elsewhere to identify material among their holdings.
Ian has identified the above two frames as coming from Arrest of a Deserter from 1898 (above left), also known as In the Name of the Queen, in which a mother tries to hide her son from the police who have come to arrest him. And above right is The Sailor’s Return, which formed a pair with The Sailor’s Departure.
These two films (along with many more) were shot in Paul’s film studio in Muswell Hill in London. A few items on the set have been changed, the furniture moved around, different pictures on the wall and a curtain for the window, but it can clearly be seen that they are the same place.
Paul was evidently very pleased with the output from his studio in 1898, judging by the way he advertised his wares:
‘Each of which tells a tale, whether Comic, Pathetic or Dramatic, with such clearness, brilliancy and telling effect that the attention of the beholders should be riveted.’
As well as offering tantalising glimpses of works presumed lost, there may be additional frames of incomplete films too, such as Come Along, Do!, one of the earliest films to comprise more than one shot. Currently, only a few stills of the second half of the film survive; maybe these additional six frames can take the next step towards completing it?
Further research is needed on these to fully identify them all. For now, the frames will be returned to the safety of the museum’s stores available for when the next batch of fragments of films previously considered lost appear, when hopefully they can be brought together again to reveal more of the rich history of British cinema.