Colourful stories no. 5 – The Brighton School

Davidson-Jumeaux two-colour system

Davidson-Jumeaux two-colour system from 1904, blue-green image on the left, orange image on the right

We might note, in passing, that almost all these pioneers were living in Brighton and that they were all in their individualistic and several ways certain that they, and they alone, had inventions worth a fortune. Why did they not collaborate? Were they mutually acquainted? We shall probably never know.

So wrote Adrian Klein, author of the exceptional history and technological survey, Colour Cinematography, first published in 1936. For it is an intriguing fact that most of the pioneers of colour cinematography in what we can call the pre-Kinemacolor era were located in and around the Brighton area, 1898-1906. And in answer to Klein, yes, they were mutually acquainted, some did collaborate, and this is their story.

It was the French film historian Georges Sadoul who first coined the phrase ‘Brighton School’ in the 1940s, to describe a small group of experimenters in motion picture form, among them Esmé Collings, G.A. Smith and James Williamson, who were based in the Brighton and Hove area. The notion of a ‘school’ is a misleading one, though it has proved an enduring term in early film studies, but there was undoubtedly a grouping of like-minded filmmakers, photographers and technicians, larger in composition than Sadoul realised, and dedicated mostly not to innovations in film form to please future film historians, but in a holy grail for the new film industry, colour cinematography. The chief ‘members’ were Alfred Darling, William Norman Lascelles Davidson, Benjamin Jumeaux, Edward Grün, Otto Pfenninger, William Friese-Greene, Charles Urban and George Albert Smith.

Alfred Darling

Alfred Darling, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

Alfred Darling (1862-1931) was not an experimenter in colour cinematography himself, but he was a technician of genius, whose presence in the area (he lived at 25 Ditchling Rise, Hove) gave huge impetus to the local cinematography industry. His engineering business supplied cinematographic equipment for the Warwick Trading Company, the major British film business of the late 1890s/early 1900s era. It was he who constructed Bioscope cameras and projectors for Warwick, and who supplied much of the equipment used by his experimenting neighbours.

Kammatograph

The Kammatograph, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

Captain William Norman Lascelles Davidson (c.1871-c.1944), formerly of the 4th Battalion The Kings (Liverpool) Regiment, was an enthusiastic amateur inventor, pursuing the goal of both colour photography and colou cinematography. He claimed to have spent £3,000 in his quest (multiply figures from the early 1900s by 100 to have an idea of equivalent costs today). His first patent for a putative three-colour cinematography system was issued in 1898, which he followed by with a patent for a three-colour still photography method the following year. No working model emerged from either, but in 1901 he teamed up with his neighbour Dr Benjamin Jumeaux to work on the Kammatograph, a filmless device which recorded motion pictures in a spiral on a disc, invented by Leo Kamm. They experimented with two colour filters, instead of three, an inspiration that may have come from the man who probably processed their films – or else he was to take the idea from them – their near neighbour G.A. Smith. Other experiments followed in 1903 and particularly 1904, with their invention (B.P. 7,179 of 1904) which employed twin prisms creating a blue-green and orange record with the pictures side by side, exposed simultaneously (see illustration at top of this post). But the results demonstrated were criticised for poor definition and unnatural colour effects. Davidson then took on William Friese-Greene as his employee, and other demonstrations would follow in 1906, with similar lack of practical success. Davidson then fades out of the picture, still something of a mystery figure.

Davidson-Jumeaux (?) three-colour experiment

Mystery three-colour experiment (c.1903) believed to be by Davidson and Jumeaux, part of the Will Day collection, Cinémathèque française

Three-colour composite

Computerised synthesis of what the above colour record might have looked like

Dr Benjamin Jumeaux (c.1852-?) is still more of a mystery. He lived in Southwick, just outside Brighton, as did Davidson and Smith. He was born in Ceylon (Sir Lanka), of Anglo-French parentage. In the 1901 census he is described as a physician, surgeon and artist. He is named on patents alongside Davidson, but also had patents issued under his own name, demonstrating that he was not simply a financier to the experiments. Included in the Will Day collection at the Cinémathèque française is an extraordinary piece of film, 82mm wide, with three parallel black-and-white images, each registering a red, green and blue image. The Cinémathèque has identified this as Davidson-Jumeaux, apparently through evidence suplied by a perforator, but I have come across no evidence of such a film featuring in their public demonstrations.

Dr Edward F. Grün, or Grune, also lived in Southwick, and was close friends with G.A. Smith. His hobby was inventions in colour photography, and he became briefly celebrated in 1902 for his invention of a ‘fluid’ lens, with coloured fluids within the camera lens itself. Ingenious but pointless, the idea did not catch on. Grün’s would feature as a key witness in a 1913 court case between Kinemacolor and a rival colour system, Biocolour, where his muddled testimony revealed his uncertain grasp of technology as well as events. More on that story in a later post.

Otto Pfenniger

Otto Pfenninger colour photograph of Brighton beach, 1906, from Royal Photographic Society

Otto Pfenninger (1855-?) was Swiss-born, but living in Brighton by the 1890s, where he ran a photography business. He became closely associated with the other Brighton experimenters, especially Davidson and Jumeaux, whom he assisted in some form, but his prime interest was always still photography. He wrote on his experiences in a book, Byepaths of Colour Photography (1921) published under the pseudonym O. Reg, from which the rare (unique?) frames of a Davidson-Jumeaux two-colour experiment in 1904 at the top of this post derives. He devised his own three-colour still photography system, demonstrated by the photograph above of Brighton beach in July 1906.

William Friese-Greene

William Friese-Greene, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

William Friese-Greene (1855-1921) had had a long association with Brighton through his business partnership with Esmé Collings before he moved from Essex to 203 Western Road, Brighton in 1905. Here he became the paid employee of Captain Davidson, whose experiments were conducted at 20 Middle Street, Brighton. Friese-Greene already had a patent for a three-colour cinematography system in his name from 1898, and issued another with Davidson in April 1905 (B.P. 9,465 – it employed a beam-splitting prism), which he would subsequently boast was the ‘master patent’ for colour cinematography. It was of no such thing, but the full story behind Friese-Greene’s vainglorious efforts to invent colour cinematography must receive full treatment later in this series.

Charles Urban

Charles Urban

Charles Urban (1867-1942) was not an inventor nor a resident of Brighton, but he was a major figure on the scene, and the most important person in colour cinematography in the period up to the First World War, for his championing of Kinemacolor. Urban had first become interested in colour cinematogaphy when Edward Turner and Frederick Lee (subjects of an earlier post) came to his Warwick Trading Company in 1901 looking for financial support for their three-colour system. When Warwick the company lost interest, Urban took on the financing of the project himself. Turner died in 1903, but, undeterred, Urban passed on the development work to his close associate G.A. Smith. Urban came down to Brighton every weekend (or so he claimed) as Smith’s experiments progressed, making himself an honorary ‘Brighton School’ member. Much more on his history is to follow.

George Albert Smith

George Albert Smith, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

And then there is George Albert Smith (1864-1959), long-lived enough that he might have corrected Adrian Klein, had he a mind to. He lived in Brighton and Southwick, and had already enjoyed a colourful career as mesmerist, showman, filmmaker and film processor for the Warwick Trading Company. He had worked with Lee and Turner, he knew all about the two-colour experiments of Davidson and Jumeaux, he knew all the others, knew what they had done right and all the more importantly what they had done wrong. In particular, he had taken note of the two-colour experiments of Davidson and Jumeaux, and thought he knew how he could make such an idea work, not least by application of his superior knowledge of sensitising photographic materials.

So tune in next week, for the invention of Kinemacolor.

Recommended reading:
Luke McKernan, ‘The Brighton School and the Quest for Natural Colour’, in Vanessa Toulmin and Simon Popple (eds.), Visual Delights – two: Exhibition and Reception (Eastleigh: John Libbey, 2005)

Music for experimental film

I missed this excellent-looking DVD release from Kino when it appeared late last year, but no harm in drawing attention to it now.

Music for Experimental Film is a collection of avant garde film classics from the 1920s, with music from former Television guitarist and front man Tom Verlaine plus producer/guitarist Johnny Rip. Originally a live show, the DVD features the original films with the music accompaniment for the most played live from a selection of the concerts.

The films featured are:

L’Étoile de Mer (France 1928 12 mins Man Ray)

The Fall of the House of Usher (USA 1928 13 mins James S. Watson & Melville Webber)

The Life and Death of 9413 A Hollywood Extra (USA 928 11 mins Slavko Vorkapich and Robert Florey)

Emak-Bakia (France 1926 13 mins Man Ray)

Rhythmus 21 (Germany 1921 3 mins Hans Richter)

Brumes d’Automne (France 1929 12 mins Dimitri Kirsanoff)

Ballet Mécanique (France 1924 10 mins Fernand Léger)

To judge from the extracts Kino have provided on the YouTube promo (Emak-Bakia, Rhythmus 21 and Ballet Mécanique) the marriage of delicate post-punk guitar and the visual purity of the films (all the better for the occasional scratches and blemishes earned through age) works particularly well. An apposite and haunting combination.