Light years ago

28th October 1994 at 00:00
Gerald Haigh reports on how magic lanterns can be used to bring the Victorians out of the dark ages and how optical toys tell us much about the way children played.

The magic lantern was a typical piece of confident Victorian technology our forebears' snook-cocking retort to those who tried to tell them that the slide projector had not yet been invented.

A beautiful device of polished mahogany and brass, it projected four-inch square transparencies photographs, drawings, cartoons, patterns, black and white or hand-coloured.

Its illumination came from "limelight" an oxy-hydrogen flame playing on a piece of calcium oxide and it is entirely in keeping with those thrusting times that not only did the lanternist usually make his own oxygen and hydrogen in the hall before the show started, but he sometimes in the process blew himself to kingdom come, along with any members of the public who happened to be nearby.

Those magic lanterns which survive in the hands of enthusiasts are fortunately, if less excitingly, converted to electricity. A magic lantern show, nevertheless, is a wonderful school event, because not only does the instrument itself provide a glimpse of a clever Victorian device in action, but the slides provide a window into the interests and attitudes of the time.

One of the best-known, best-equipped and most knowledgeable magic lantern enthusiasts is retired senior education officer Philip Banham, who visits schools with his lantern and selections from his collection of 15,000 original Victorian glass slides. He has slides on a range of curriculum-related topics industry, child labour, rural life, houses and homes, leisure and pastimes. All of these slides are in wonderful condition, and come up on the screen with attention-grabbing presence and clarity.

There is much more to Philip's shows, though, than just looking and admiring. For example, he encourages pupils to question what they are seeing "I show a picture which is supposedly of a poor family, and I point out that there are five things in it that should tell them they are being conned."

The picture is faked with actors, and pupils are quick to see that, for example, the subjects' hair is too well kept. He then shows, for comparison, genuine contemporary photographs of slum dwellers.

He also projects original "picture story" cartoon sequences, and asks the children to write their own scripts. "Then I leave behind a copy of the original script and they can see how language and attitudes have changed, " he says.

The script-writing is done in his workshop sessions. Typically, while one group is script writing, another group will be hand-colouring a set of original black-and-white slides which they will later see being projected.

A recent development for him, originally suggested by teachers, is to use his magic lantern to support the science curriculum by demonstrating some of the properties of light.

In addition to his lanterns and slides, Philip Banham has a wonderful collection of Victorian mechanical and optical toys, including a lovely Zoetrope (a spinning cylinder with a series of pictures giving an illusion of movement). He encourages children to handle all of these.

Headteacher Barrie Hayles had some very appreciative comments about Philip Banham's workshop with Year 6 at Southam Middle School.

"The children loved it, and it picked up superbly with the work they were doing in school both on the Victorians and in science. It was very successful, and Mr Banham came across very well indeed."

Philip Banham, Meadow Farm House, Wolverton, Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire CV37 0HG

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