Reel-life pioneer | Robert Paul: The Forgotten Showman

This exuberant show at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford, puts the camera lights on a forgotten inventor
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Jamie Taylor
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Visitors can watch screenings of Robert Paul’s films
Visitors can watch screenings of Robert Paul’s films

Roll up, roll up for an exhibition like no other. Step right this way for a bawdy, raucous tale of danger, disaster and rivalry that will have you on the edge of your seat.

Featuring the latest technology of the Edwardian age, you won’t believe your eyes at the wonders contained in the National Science and Media Museum’s latest extravaganza, Robert Paul: The Forgotten Showman.

I may have gone a little overboard in my introduction, but I had so much fun visiting this exhibition that a little of the showmanship employed in the interpretation seems to have rubbed off on me.

This was one of the best exhibitions I’ve seen in a while, being both daring in its execution and true to its subject matter. From the moment I walked through the door, I knew that I was in for an entertaining visit.

The exhibition opens with a display of a kinetoscope, which was used for viewing films

Robert Paul, as the title suggests, is not exactly a household name. The exhibition tries to remedy this injustice, showing that he should be remembered alongside Thomas Edisonand the Lumière brothers as one of the great pioneers of early motion pictures.

Paul began his career as a maker of scientific instruments, but his life changed forever in 1894 when he began building and selling copies of Edison’s kinetoscope, an early film-viewing device. Edison, somewhat piqued by Paul’s knockoffs, refused to provide him with films to play in the kinetoscopes. This forced Paul, a man not short on ingenuity, to make his own, and thus begin a career in motion pictures.

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World firsts

With cameras and moving images so ubiquitous today, it is difficult to appreciate just how revolutionary Paul’s creations were. You get a real sense of this at the start of the exhibition through a simple display of magic lantern slides. With their jerky movements and cartoon style, it’s clear to see just how limited projection technology was in the late 19th century.

The contrast of these rather crude and unconvincing attempts at motion with the naturalistic realism of the early film footage produced by Paul is stark and hammers home how mind-blowing his films must have been to contemporary audiences.

Three frames from a 35mm print of the first successful kinetoscope film made in Britain in March 1895, titled ‘Incident at Clovelly Cottage’

The exhibition is full of firsts that we take for granted today. An example is the two frames of the first reel of film ever made in Britain. When you think of the millions of miles of celluloid that came after, this encounter is humbling.

Also on show is the world’s first two-scene film, Come Along, Do!, an amusingly titled 1898 comedy. It seems such a simple thing, but by splicing together two rolls of film, Paul opened the door for the modern narrative-driven blockbuster.

In focus: Interpretation

We all enjoy going to the cinema, yet few people have heard of the film pioneer Robert Paul. So, when we began developing interpretation for the Forgotten Showman, we knew that everything – from the displays to the text and gallery design – had to capture the drive and excitement of Paul’s career if we were going to convey his relevance to visitors.

Our starting point was Time Traveller, a graphic novel by co-curator Ian Christie and graphic artist ILYA. Combining ILYA’s artwork with a punchy, filmic writing style immediately created the energy we were after. And by simply writing the panels in the present tense made Paul’s story feel immediate and engaging.

Paul’s career was full of dramatic moments, and we had fun with how we presented them in the exhibition. His battle with the Lumière Brothers to be the first to project films in Britain is embodied by their original projectors facing off in a boxing ring. And writing object captions in the style of a boxing announcer is an experience that won’t be easily beaten.

Kate Burnett is the interpretation developer at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford

One of my favourite objects was the “filoscope”, a mechanical flipbook that the exhibition highlights as the world’s first play-at-home movie.

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The objects are interspersed with the “reel” stars of the show: the films themselves. The exhibition does a good job of conveying how these would have been experienced by audiences of the day. There is an opportunity to peer through a kinetoscope and to contrast that with the more communal experience of watching films in a recreated theatre setting.

It wasn’t until I watched Paul’s films back to back that I began to understand the appeal. With their simple, short format and DIY feel, they feel like an early forerunner of TikTok.

Perhaps the most affecting and significant objects of the show are saved until last. Paul quit the film industry in 1910 after being crowded out of the market by bigger film studios. After burning his entire stock of film, he returned to making scientific instruments. On display is his life-saving ventilator, the Bragg-Paul Pulsator.

Another highlight for me was the refreshing tone of the writing. Throughout the exhibition, the information is playful and created a feel of the Edwardian music hall.

An early kinematograph apparatus for making films, made by Robert Paul in London, 1896

I’ve never had more fun reading an introductory panel than at the Forgotten Showman. The labels in the camera shop display are written with such humour and gusto that I could almost hear the salesperson persuading me to buy their latest model.

That direct tone also came through in the section on the rivalry between Paul and the Lumière brothers. Set up in the style of a boxing ring, the display’s text has all the bombastic tone of an announcer hyping up a prize fight. I suspect that in all the works written on the Lumière brothers’ revolutionary Cinématographe, nowhere has it been described as “The Parisian Peril! The cinema assassin! ... The infamous triple threat!”.

This style combines to not only leaven the exhibition and give it a sense of time and place, it also gives it a level of accessibility through the absence of a traditional curatorial voice. A mention must go to the comic book writer and artist ILYA, whose work on Paul’s life is used liberally in the show. His illustrations provide a sense of character to the story’s protagonists and help drive the narrative.

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Revolutionary work

My one criticism is that I would have liked to see a more diverse range of voices in the exhibition.

An opportunity for this was particularly missed in the final film summing up Paul’s legacy – for a show so successfully aimed at a younger audience, it was a shame that we didn’t get to hear their reactions to Paul’s work. Robert Paul: The Forgotten Showman is an excellent exhibition and one of my highlights of 2020.

Its grandiloquent and playful style had me enthralled from the get-go and created a sense of time and place that immersed me in the hustle and bustle of an Edwardian music hall.

The combination of worldfirst objects and rare film footage really drove home Paul’s revolutionary work and rightful place in film history. Thanks to this wonderful exhibition, I won’t be forgetting this showman in a hurry.

Jamie Taylor is a curator, copywriter and creative producer

Project data
Cost
Undisclosed
Exhibition build
Hadley Interiors
Exhibition installation
Hadley Interiors
Design
Instruct
Print and installation of main graphics
Extreme Display
Covid-friendly graphics
Instruct
Covid graphics installation
Psycho Peacock
Interactives
DefProc Engineering
Exhibition ends
21 February 2021
Admission
Free

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