Dark Times

07 02 etienne robertToday, 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.

07 02 burning glass

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.

07 02 robert's balloonHe 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.

07 02 fuseli nightmare

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…

07 02 robert's tomb


Life in the Shadows

12 02 phantasmagoriaToday I am assigning a birthday to somebody who doesn’t have one. Yesterday I mentioned Paul Philidor who first brought Madame Tussaud and her waxworks to London. I don’t know when he was born, only that it was some time in the eighteenth century, I don’t know quite when he died, it was either 1828 or 1829. I don’t even think Paul Philidor was his real name.

The conjuring of ghostly apparitions, with the aid of a projector of some sort, for pleasure and profit, had been happening since at least the middle of the seventeenth century. By the eighteenth century, other elements were being incorporated and the séance with lantern show was becoming something of an art form. One of its leading proponents was Johann Georg Schröpfer, who also had no recorded date of birth, so I might as well tell you about him too. Schröpfer was an occultist who presented himself as a necromancer who could raise the spirits of the dead. Beginning in 1768, he gave seances in his café in Leipzig. His was a multi-sensory experience. He would begin by giving his audience a special punch to drink. I don’t know what was in it. Then they would be taken into a darkened room in which there was a black altar with candles placed in skulls. They would be made to stand inside a magic circle. Schröpfer would light incense and begin his invocations. The lights would go out and the whole room would start to shake. Then his audience would see ghostly images appear, in the smoke of burning incense, which would speak. Of course, Schröpfer had a whole team behind the scenes to help him produce his startling effects. Though this does not seem to have prevented him from starting to believe in his own powers. He went a bit strange and his life did not end well.

By the 1780s, men of a more scientific persuasion had begun to publish books debunking Schröpfer’s work and exposing his methods. Although they were intended for scientific study, they also served as ‘how to’ handbooks for anyone else who wanted a go.

Paul Philidor was a follower of Schröpfer’s methods. We first hear of him in Berlin in 1789 where he was giving séances using magic lanterns and conjuring tricks to persuade his audiences that he had supernatural powers. He was exposed as a fraud and two years later he was in Vienna where his show ran for a year. He called his apparitions ‘Schröpferesque Geisterscheinings’ in homage to the man who had inspired him.

In 1793, he turned up in Paris. France was then several years into the Revolution and people were particularly interested in seeing ghosts of their martyred heroes. By now he was no longer claiming that the ghosts were real. In his introductory speech he said “I am neither priest nor magician; I do not wish to deceive you; but I will astonish you.” Despite this, his performance did still seem to be quite unsettling, as he was able to back project his images onto a screen which was not seen by the audience, as it was lowered after the lights went out. By moving his magic lantern away from the screen he was able to make it seem as though the spirit was rushing at the crowd. He also employed more that one slide at a time to he could make the ghosts seem to move and change.

It seems Philidor misjudged his audience though, as he got into trouble for depicting Robespierre as a devil and make it seem (though he swore it was an accident) as if the spirit of Louis XIV was rising towards heaven. As this was pretty much in the middle of the reign of terror, only months after the king and queen had been guillotined, it didn’t go down too well and Philidor disappeared pretty sharpish. He may have been imprisoned and then liberated by the same Dr. Curtius who rescued Marie Tussaud.

Whatever happened, it is likely the same man who arrived in London in 1801 calling himself Paul de Philipsthal. He set up a permanent show at the Lyceum Theatre called ‘Phantasmagoria’. As well as his projections there was an exhibition of automata including a mechanical peacock, something called ‘the beautiful cossack’ and a ‘self defending chest’ which shot anyone who tried to open the lid. The following year, he exhibited alongside Madame Tussuad at the Lyceum. I’m not quite sure what happened to him after that. Philidor is a rather shadowy figure, who disappears and reappears not unlike his ghostly projections. It’s been rather difficult to tell which stories belong to him and which to his predecessor, Schröpfer or his successor, Robertson, but I hope I’ve done him justice here.12 02 phantasmagoria