Ahead of his time – Robert Paul (1869-1943)

An introduction to a man you have probably never heard of,  who became the leading pioneer of film-making in Britain – partly by accident.

Being a great fan of Robert Elms on Radio London I was listening to his radio show one morning last week. He had Ian Christie on his show as his ‘Listed Londoner’. Ian Christie is a British Film Scholar and Professor of Film and Media History at Birkbeck, University of London.

Christie talked, amongst other things, about Robert Paul and the exhibition he had curated at the Bruce Castle Museum and Haringey Archive entitled ‘Animatograph! How Cinema Was Born in Haringey’.

I was immediately smitten and decided it was a ‘must visit’.

The Bruce Castle Museum is located in Lordship Lane, London N17. The Museum is housed in a Grade I listed 16th century manor house. It is named after the House of Bruce, who formally owned the land on which it is built.

Robert Paul became the leading pioneer film maker in Britain largely by accident. Inventors had been trying to make images move in a life-like way for at least 100 years. In around 1890, many moving picture devices were patented, but it was Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope that reached a paying public. These were expensive machines and not patented outside the United States.

Paul was a young electrical Instrument maker in Central London, who was commissioned to make replica Kinetoscopes. He ran some of these at Earls Court in 1895.

Next he and a photographer, Birt Acres, devised their own camera to make the first English films that summer. These included ‘Arrest of a Pickpocket’ and ‘Rough Sea at Dover’

Paul created a projector in early 1896, known as the Theatrograph or Animatograpgh, which was first shown publicly in London on the same day as the famous Luminere Cinematographe was revealed, on 20th February. Soon these were both running nightly at Leicester Square’s major theatres The Alhambra and the Empire.

With more producers appearing, Paul built a studio in North London in Sydney Road, Muswell Hill, allowing him and his wife Ellen to make more elaborate story-films.

During the Anglo-Boer war of 1899-1902 he developed many new kinds of film-making, including a documentary called ‘Army Life’. This was around 40 to 50 minutes long and was actually filmed on Muswell Hill Golf course.

Robert Paul produced around eight hundred films during his life, although only a few survive and some of these are not complete. My own favourite is ‘Blackfriars Bridge’ 1896. It shows a short scene shot on Blackfriars Bridge – interestingly with his old City of London school in the background.

Christie places Paul alongside Britain’s other great engineers Brunel and Stevenson, in spite of his relative obscurity. Which is reason enough to go see this well-overdue exhibition celebrating his work.

The free exhibition is on until 28 July 2019. Do not miss it!

You can read more about the exhibition and the accompanying book by Ian Christie here


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