In 1899, just five years after British audiences first saw moving pictures, Edward Turner, a photographer, and Frederick Marshall Lee, his financial backer, patented the first colour moving picture process in Britain.
A complicated process, it involved photographing successive frames of black-and-white film through blue, green and red filters. Using a special projector (which you can see in the gallery), these were combined on a screen to produce full-colour images.
Turner died in 1903 and Charles Urban turned to early film pioneer George Albert Smith to perfect the process. After working on it for a year, Smith deemed Turner’s process unworkable and it was abandoned in favour of his own, simpler, colour process. Marketed by Urban as Kinemacolor, this became the first commercially successful colour moving picture process and made a fortune.
Between 1901 and 1903 Turner had created a number of short test films which Urban kept. By using digital technology and following Turner’s method exactly, we have been able to reveal the full-colour moving images on these films so that they can be seen for the first time in 110 years. You can watch the full footage in our Kodak Gallery or see edited highlights in the video below.
Funded by the Screen Heritage UK Programme, a partnership between the British Film Institute, Screen Yorkshire and English Regional Film Archives to safeguard the future of the UK’s film archives. Funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Special thanks to our project partners, Yorkshire Film Archive and Screen Yorkshire.
Additional thanks to Brian Pritchard, David Cleveland, Roger Mortimer, Madeline Weller and Prime Focus for their help and support.
Read on for the full story of how Lee and Turner’s film came to be.
James Clerk Maxwell (1833–1879) demonstrates three-colour additive synthesis at the Royal Society by showing the first color photograph.
Edward Raymond Turner is born.
18 October: The first British Kinetoscope parlour, showing Edison’s moving pictures, opens at 112 Oxford Street, London.
Frederic Ives (1856–1937) invents the Photochromoscope device to view photographs in colour.
28 December: First public screening of Lumière Brothers films, Paris.
20 February: First public screening of Lumière Brothers films in the UK, at Marlborough Hall, London.
Hand colouring of moving pictures begins.
Charles Urban (1867–1942) arrives in London to manage Edison’s agency, the Continental Commerce Company, later renamed the Warwick Trading Company.
Frederic Ives opens Photochromoscope Syndicate in Shaftesbury Avenue, London.
Edward Raymond Turner is first employed as a photographer.
17 December: Hermann Isensee, Berlin, patents first process for colour cinematography—DRP 98,799, Device for the Depiction of Coloured Animated Photography—but it is never realised practically.
11 October: Frederick Marshall Lee and Edward Raymond Turner form a partnership.
22 March: Lee and Turner apply for patent BP6202, Means for Taking and Exhibition Cinematographic Pictures—the first British colour moving picture patent.
30 November: William Lascelles Davidson applies for patent BP23863, Improvements in Cinematographs for Taking and Projecting Photographs in Colours.
June: Charles Urban takes an interest in Lee and Turner’s process and involves the Warwick Trading Company.
October: Alfred Darling (1862–1931) makes a camera for the Lee and Turner process.
February: Darling makes a projector for the Lee and Turner process.
September: Urban buys out Lee’s interest in the process and continues funding Turner.
9 March: Edward Raymond Turner dies.
The Charles Urban Trading Company is formed.
Urban commissions George Albert Smith (1864–1959) to continue work on the process.
Smith abandons work on the Lee and Turner process in favour of a simpler two-colour process of his own, believing it has better commercial potential.
William Friese Greene patents a colour process, BP 9465 Improvements in and relating to the Production of Negatives and Positives for Multi-colour Projection and Improved Means for Projection on to a Screen.
24 November: Smith patents the Kinemacolor process, BP 26671 Improvements in & relating to Kinematograph Apparatus for the Production of Coloured Pictures.
1 May: Urban launches Kinemacolor at his new premises, Urbanora House, 89-91 Wardour Street, London.
26 February: First public screenings of Kinemacolor take place at Palace Theatre of Varieties, London.
18 December: Friese Greene challenges Kinemacolor patent.
March: House of Lords upholds Friese Greene’s challenge. Smith’s 1906 patent is revoked.
First Technicolor process invented. This was a two-colour process, and the first of four Technicolor processes.
Development of the Technicolor three-colour process—the first full-colour process used successfully in cinemas.
Charles Urban donates his collection to the Science Museum. This contains the Lee and Turner films.
The National Media Museum restores Lee and Turner’s films, revealing the first colour moving pictures.