Exhibition of Muswell Hill film pioneer Robert Paul

4:23 PM February 2, 2022

The decade when early film pioneers Robert and Ellen Paul ran Britain’s first purpose-built film studios at Muswell Hill is explored in a new exhibition.

The Lost World of Paul’s Animation Works is on display at the Hornsey Library’s Original Gallery throughout February, curated by film scholar Professor Ian Christie, who has done much to uncover their forgotten history.

He estimates that at the height of production in the early 1900s, the Pauls employed up to 50 people at their Sydney Road base, with filming often spilling out onto local streets, the grounds of Alexandra Palace or onto the Muswell Hill golf course where they staged the battlefield. reenactments.

Robert W Paul filim pioneer who lived in Sydney Road, Muswell Hill
– Credit: Archant

An engineer and instrument maker, Paul was at the birth of British cinema, making a version of Edison’s Kinetograph, co-inventing a 35mm film camera and demonstrating the Theatograph, “Britain’s first film projector”. , at Finsbury Technical College on February 20, 1896 – the same day the Lumière Brothers first showed their films in London.

He branched out into film production, and wanting to “take subjects on a more ambitious scale”, bought a four-acre plot of land on Sydney Road where he built the Animatograph Works studio, including a stage with sliding doors, a canopy and a trolley on rails for the camera.

“There’s still so much we don’t know about how it worked out, but I think we can be sure that Ellen was very involved in its management, which makes her one of the “women of silent cinema” who must come out of the shadows and gave her credit,” says Christie.

One of the few surviving shots from the Robert Paul film Come Along Do!

One of the few surviving shots from the Robert Paul film Come Along Do!
– Credit: Courtesy of Ian Christie

Between 1898 and 1909, “Hollywood on the Hill” created about 800 films of various genres, many of which were technically and dramatically revolutionary with optical effects, close-ups and cuts. Sadly most are lost, but the former dancer, Ellen can be seen performing in the 1898 film Come Along Do! which partially survives.

Christie says it’s likely she appeared in others, but the only authenticated photo is of her accompanying Paul to the launch of the battleship HMS Albion in 1898 on the River Thames. Paul was filming from a boat when a gangway collapsed and many spectators drowned.

Ellen Paul in a shot of her husband Robert Paul's film of the launching of HMS Albion on the Thames on June 21, 1898.

Ellen Paul in a shot from her husband Robert Paul’s film of the launch of HMS Albion on the Thames in 1898.
– Credit: Courtesy of Ian Christie

The exhibition includes a video compilation of new archival discoveries, including Kruger’s Dream of Empire, “a remarkable piece of Boer War propaganda which has been hidden in the Imperial War Museum”, and The Dancer’s Dream, a fantastic ballet from 1905 which has survived with colors intact.

Also included is a giant inflatable panel that Paul presented to the Science Museum in 1913 with footage from his early films.

Boer War drama Kruger's Dream of Empire (1900)

Boer War drama Kruger’s Dream of Empire (1900)
– Credit: Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

As rival productions grew bigger and more expensive, Paul found the production “too speculative”. Despite some commercial success, The Burning Home, (1909) which depicted Vince Cottages on Colney Hatch Lane on fire, “seems to have been the film which decided Paul to give up production”.

But by then his projector, used in music halls across the country, had helped popularize cinema, and his studios had nurtured a new generation of filmmakers.

Ian Christie’s book Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema is published by Chicago University Press.

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