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By Toni Booth on

William Friese-Greene, 100 years on

Toni Booth reveals objects from our collection that shed light on the much-debated story of cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene.

2021 is the centenary of the death of the ‘the inventor of kinematography’. This bold statement has fuelled discussion about the legacy of William Friese-Greene since he died poignantly, as a then relatively unknown figure, at a meeting of the British cinema industry in London on 5 May 1921.

Over the past 100 years, Friese-Greene is possibly the one figure associated with the early days of cinema in Britain (and the world) whose standing has ebbed and flowed the most. During his lifetime, he was feted by the photographic press in the 1880s, then fell from cinematic view in the 1890s with reappearances in the very late 19th and early 20th centuries, only to fall again.

He was championed by film historian Will Day, had a glowing biography written about him in 1948 from which a film was made—The Magic Box, which was premiered as part of the Festival of Britain celebrations in 1951—only for claims made for his work to be dismantled by historian Brian Coe in 1962. More recently, there has been a renewed investigation to get to the bottom of what he actually achieved. It’s been quite a story and clearly it’s still not over.

But rather than going into a long explanation of Friese-Greene and his work here (much of which can be found elsewhere online), I thought it would be interesting to present a short visual history of William Friese-Greene using items in the National Science and Media Museum collection. His name and work have been celebrated in many ways…

William Friese-Greene
Portrait of William Friese-Greene

Born in Bristol on 7 September 1855, William Friese-Greene began his working life as a photographer, achieving considerable success, with studios in Bath, Plymouth, Bristol and London.

Four photos of William Friese-Greene showing different facial expressions
Silver gelatin photograph by and showing William Friese-Greene, c.1886. Science Museum Group Collection

While in Bath he began working with John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, a scientific instrument maker known as the ‘Wizard of the Magic Lantern’, to make sequential images for lantern projection—including the above four of William himself from about 1886. This was the spark that ignited his interest in moving pictures.

William Friese-Greene's Stereo Cine Camera
William Friese-Greene’s Stereo Cine Camera, manufactured by A Lege & Co, London, c.1890. Science Museum Group Collection

He was later to work with other photographers and instrument makers on various patents and pieces of equipment. The above stereoscopic camera dates from 1890 and was made with Frederick Varley. It was made to take stereo (3D) images but was too slow to be able to capture the 16 pictures per second required to reproduce motion.

Newspaper cutting pasted into an album
News of Friese-Greene’s death was reported widely, often focusing on his tragedy of being the inventor of an industry which went on to make other people rich, while he was declared bankrupt twice—the suggestion being that at worst they stole his ideas and at best failed to credit him.
A float covered with flowers and a floral sign reading 'The End'
Friese-Greene’s funeral procession in 1921

The British cinema industry, possibly out of some regret about the financial difficulties William had encountered, provided an elaborate projector and screen-shaped flower display at his funeral.

The invitation to Friese-Greene’s funeral

The funeral invitation card describes William as ‘Father of the Kinema’, a term often used by film historian Will Day, who referred to him as the ‘real and true inventor of commercial kinematography’. Day knew Friese-Greene personally during his lifetime and it was Day who was the driving force in championing William’s cause after his death.

Frontispiece of a book with a photo of Friese-Greene holding a dog
Friese-Greene: Close-up of an Inventor by Ray Allister

Several years passed before William reappeared in the public realm, with the publication of this biography by Ray Allister, which while an entertaining and dramatic read does tend to romanticise his life.

Two of the more unusual items in our collection are examples of food manufacturers who used Friese-Greene in their marketing campaigns.

Typhoo tea packet
Packet of Ty-Phoo tea featuring William Friese-Greene, 1972.

Ty-Phoo tea produced 24 tea trade cards in the 100 Years of British Achievement series in 1972. Customers had to collect 12 tokens (one of each packet) and then send them off with a request for the trade card of choice, a colour version of those which were printed on the packaging. Cinematography was number 4 in the series and was represented by William Friese-Greene.

Illustrated ad with a sugar cube waving a Union Jack and looking into a camera
Lyons sugar advertisement celebrating William Friese-Greene

More oddly, the British sugar industry appropriated Friese-Greene and his work as part of a campaign to prevent the British government nationalising the sugar industry in 1949. Here Mr Cube, an animated character created by Tate and Lyle, takes the role of the cine inventor.

A copy of Everybody’s Weekly magazine from 6 September 1951, featuring Robert Donat as William Friese-Greene in the film The Magic Box on the cover. Science Museum Group Collection

A part of the celebrations for the Festival of Britain in 1951, a film was made of William’s life, based on the Ray Allister book, with Robert Donat as William and a star-studded supporting cast including Laurence Olivier, Googie Withers, Michael Redgrave, Margaret Rutherford and Peter Ustinov.

World premiere programme for The Magic Box, Odeon Theatre, Leicester Square, 18 September 1951.

Around the same time, the below cartoon strip was published celebrating the great British achievement of cinematography, although it does tend to focus on the sad story of the later years of William’s life.

Colourful cartoon strip titled 'Great British Achievements'

This is just a small amount of the William Friese-Greene collection material from our collection. Hopefully it all can be used in the future to shed more light on this much-debated figure from film history.

Toni Booth will be giving a talk on ‘William Friese-Greene: The Forgotten Man of British Cinema’ at Widescreen Weekend Lectures on Friday 8 October 2021. This event is part of Widescreen Weekend, our yearly film festival celebrating the past, present and future of film.

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