Today, I want to tell you about Étienne-Gaspard Robert. Robert was an artist and showman, but also a physics lecturer and a balloonist. He died on this day in 1837. I don’t usually celebrate the death of a person here, not if I like them anyway. But Robert’s career was all about death, so it seems appropriate. Robert became a stage magician who was famous for his ‘Phantasmagoria’, which means, roughly, ‘gathering of ghosts’.
Robert was born in Belgium in 1763. He studied at the university of Leuven and became a professor of physics, specialising in optics. But he also loved painting. In 1791, he moved to Paris to pursue his vocation. He arrived only a couple of years after the beginning of the French Revolution and he probably witnessed the deaths of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in 1793. This was followed by the ‘Reign of Terror’ when more that sixteen and a half thousand people were guillotined. They were dark times. Coupled with this, France was at war with Britain. Robert thought he had a fantastic idea that would really help. He proposed building a giant burning glass that could be used to set fire to the British ships. His idea was based on the myth of the burning mirrors of Archimedes, who was supposed to have used mirrors to focus the sun’s rays to set fire to a fleet of ships at Syracuse in 212 BC. I mentioned this concept, when I wrote about Roger Bacon the other day. But the French government didn’t go for it and Robert focused his talents instead on a series of lectures about optics and galvanism.
In 1793, he had attended a magic lantern show by the illusionist Paul Philidor and he realised the potential of the medium. He studied the work of seventeenth century scholar Athanasius Kircher, who is one of the many people credited with inventing the magic lantern. The magic lantern was an early form of the slide projector, with hand painted images on glass slides. Robert added adjustable lenses and mounted his lantern on wheels. The wheels and the lenses were connected in such a way that he could move his lantern backwards and forwards, thus changing the size of the image but still keep it in focus. By back projecting the images onto a waxed gauze screen, he could make his images look as if they were rushing towards his audience. He named his device the ‘Fantascope’.
So what sort of images did he choose to show in his new machine? Well, they were all about death. He could use his lantern to raise from the dead, famous French heroes: Marat, Rousseau, Voltaire. But he did not make the same mistake as Philidor, and try to raise their lost king. Robert, being a talented artist was able to produce pretty faithful representation of the dead. He had so many slides that he could ask his audience for requests and conjure up pretty much anyone. He also made speeches to whip up his audience into a state of terror before the show had even begun and he had unseen musicians playing ghostly music. His first show was on January 23rd, 1898. Everyone was terrified, he was investigated by the authorities and closed down.
He left Paris for Bordeaux for a time and it was here that he had his first balloon ride. I’m not going to mention much about his ballooning today, but he went on to conduct several experiments about the effects of altitude: the shapes of clouds, the boiling point of water, the effect of altitude on pigeons and butterflies. From 1803 to 1839 he held the altitude record after flying to a height of 23,900 ft. However, you will have noticed this picture, on the left. This is what Robert imagined, in 1804, balloons would be like in a hundred years time. If you want to know more about what all the different bits are, I can refer you to Andrew Joseph’s blog, Pioneers of Aviation, and he’ll tell you all about it.
When he returned to Paris, he discovered that his assistants had just carried on the show without him. He moved his operation to a more permanent location and he made a good choice. He moved his show to the crypt of an abandoned convent and made it even more elaborate. His audience would have to wind their way through passages and tombs filled with scary surprises before they even got to his ‘Salle de la Fantansmagorie’. They would be seated in a room lit by a single candle, which was then extinguished. Next, they where treated to the sounds of wind and thunder and the sound of a glass armonica. Then, Robert himself would begin his frightening monologue about death and the afterlife. It was along the lines of: no one knows what happens to us after we die, but I am going to show you. All light would be extinguished and the projections would begin. He used a brazier to make smoke, using sulphuric and nitric acid and, for added effect, two cups of blood. Apparitions would begin to form in the smoke above the heads of the audience. He did this by having assistants dotted about with lanterns strapped to their chests. With a more complex lantern he was able to project more than one image and make it seem to move and change. He could make an image of the Three Graces turn into skeletons or make the eyes of his images seem to move. He was able, through using a screen, to present his ghosts alongside live actors and make the two interact.
His shows presented the popular Gothic iconography of the time. He had images based of Fuseli’s painting, ‘the Nightmare, Macbeth and the Ghost of Banquo, The Bleeding Nun, A Witches’ Sabbath, The Witch of Endor, The Gorgon’s Head, The Opening of Pandora’s Box. He would end the evening with another rousing speech:
“I have shown you the most occult things natural philosophy has to offer, effects that seemed supernatural to the ages of credulity,’ he told the audience; ‘but now see the only real horror… see what is in store for all of you, what each of you will become one day: remember the Phantasmagoria.”
Then a large skeleton would suddenly appear in the room. Robert had the perfect audience. Many people were completely captivated by death, having seen so much of it during the Reign of Terror. Then there was the birth of Gothic literature, with novels like ‘The Castle of Otranto’ and ‘Vathek‘, and corpse re-animators like Galvani and Aldini. Robert performed his show at the convent for four years and then, like Aldini, he took his show on the road, visiting northern Europe and Russia. But this was partly in order to pursue his obsession with ballooning. If you need any more evidence that Étienne-Gaspard Robert was all about death, take a look at his tomb. There is a balloon on the other side of it, but I couldn’t get a picture…