The Impact of the Lantern Slide on Art-History Lecturing in Britain

By Miyahara, Katsura | British Art Journal, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

The Impact of the Lantern Slide on Art-History Lecturing in Britain


Miyahara, Katsura, British Art Journal


Among recent notable changes to lecturing practice in all subjects has been the introduction of digital images. Using Microsoft PowerPoint, scholars are now able to make use of images which have been downloaded or scanned and no longer needing to ask university departments, museums or galleries to prepare their slides. A number of scholars still use slides, but one can foresee a time in the near future when digital images will have completely taken over. It is therefore a timely moment to consider the history of the slide and its first appearance as an aid to lectures, before it passes entirely out of use.

This paper examines how the photographic lantern slide (size 31/4 x 31/4 inches) was introduced to art-history lectures in Britain and eventually became an essential apparatus in the period between 1880 and the mid-1930s. Art-history teaching and the use of photographic reproductions in Germany and America have been relatively well studied, but few historians have investigated the case in Britain. (1) Unlike Germany and America, where art history was taught and researched in universities, the establishment of art history as an academic discipline in Britain was late--only one full-time art history chair, the Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art in Edinburgh University, existed in the entire country until the foundation of the Courtauld Institute of Art in 1932. (2) Unrecognised as an academic discipline, art history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was mostly taught as part of non-degree programmes in the universities and in museums and art galleries with the development of public education. (3) When we consider early art-history lecturing practice in Britain, including the use of the slide, it is therefore necessary to bear in mind that the lectures were aimed at the general public rather than art historians or specialised students. Examining technological and technical issues as well as pioneering art historians' uses of the lantern slide, the paper tries to cast light on the early days of art-history lectures in Britain.

In the 1880s and the 1890s the magic lantern enjoyed its heyday in British popular culture, both for entertainment and for instruction. The magic lantern had been used as an instrument for popular entertainment since the 18th century, but in the later Victorian period it was not only an illuminated picture entertainment or a show of photographs of popular interest. It was also an important resource to bring news to the uneducated, to preach morals and religious stories to a wider audience, and was a familiar toy for middle-class children. Concurrently, advertisements using the lantern appeared in stations, streets, music halls, theatres, and elsewhere. (4) DS MacColl, art critic and later Keeper of the Tate Gallery and the Wallace Collection, had already noticed the potential of the magic lantern in the beginning of the 1880s. He wrote to his sister with enthusiasm:

   I think you should go in for magic lantern slides: it strikes me
   that it is a branch of art that has not been developed as it might
   be. Think what a power in art it would be if really good pictures
   could be made public in that way like good music at a concert. (5)

By the beginning of the 1880s art history lecturers at German and American universities had adopted the use of lantern slides. Bruno Meyer at the Polytechnic Institute in Karlsruhe, Germany, who used the lantern slide in the 1870s, was one of the first art historians to realise its value as a lecturing aid. (6) In America Allan Marquand taught art history with slides at Princeton University in 1882. In the same period James Hoppin used them when he lectured at Yale University. (7) In Britain, MacColl made pioneering use of the lantern slide in lectures in the mid-1880s. In the early 1880s he started teaching art courses at the Oxford University Extension at the invitation of his friend, Michael Sadler, who soon became the Secretary of the Extension Delegacies. …

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