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The Australian National University

'My Favourite Slide'

‘The only means of instruction I was ever pressed to repeat’ - Discussed by Chief Investigator Jane Lydon

I must start by admitting that I have been struggling with this assignment because I love so many magic lantern slides and it is very hard to choose just one. In a kind of provisional and reluctant way I decided to write about a magic lantern slide I bought in London at the start of this project, showing scenes from the life of African missionary extraordinaire, David Livingstone (1813-1873). My souvenir is brightly, if crudely, painted. It shows key scenes from the famous explorer and missionary’s life: ill on a stretcher, being carried through the jungle by his devoted followers; attacked by a lion; aboard a canoe rowing across an African lake; teaching himself by reading in brief moments snatched from his gruelling childhood factory labour. And in the centre, our hero, modelled upon his portrait as it appeared in his famous 1857 book, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. His portrait in turn rests on the literary triumvirate of bible, journal and Missionary Travels itself, pointing towards the fertile cross-media culture of the late Victorian period.

It was probably made during the 1880s or 1890s, a period that saw the resurgence of magic lantern slides and their wide use by missionaries and other social campaigners, including Barnardo’s Homes, the Salvation Army and temperance organisations such as the Band of Hope. Livingstone considered his projector and slide collection an essential part of his equipment, and in an observation that somewhat softens his dour Scottish over-achiever image, once noted, rather dryly, ‘[t]his is the only means of instruction I was ever pressed to repeat'. 

                                                                                                    Title slide, Chromolithograph, 1880s-1890s, private collection. 

But Livingstone’s impact was felt not merely among the Africans he sought to convert to Christianity- he became a hero to the growing Victorian missionary movement, and inspired young men (and women) around the world who decided to emulate his brilliant career. At least one other celebratory Livingstone chromolithograph slide series made its way to Australia, earlier than my slide, and  can be seen in Museums Victoria’s superb digital archive. By the late nineteenth century, activist missionary heroes had contributed to a genre of ‘muscular Christianity’, a profoundly gendered phenomenon that linked ethical and spiritual activism to more secular values of bravery and heroism. Livingstone was the most famous of all muscular Christians, even before his 1857 Missionary Travels sold 70,000 copies and earned £12,000. Missionary Travels told a story of a new land and the adventures to be had there, and infused an ancient tradition of representing Africa as Europe’s ‘other’ with the new goal of ‘commerce’, that Livingstone argued would ‘open’ up the continent to Christianity and the abolition of slavery. Livingstone’s life and works were intensively promoted by the late Victorian missionary movement – especially through use of magic lantern slides. The ‘halo of romance’ that surrounded Livingstone was only enhanced by the reception of his life and works after his death in 1873, when his journals were edited by his disciple Horace Waller to render him a saintly, Christ-like figure.

Livingstone inspired many imitators, including Australian missionary John Brown Gribble, who saw himself as a pupil of Livingstone’s. In 1884 Gribble travelled to London and visited Livingstone’s tomb in Westminster Cathedral, confiding (slightly incoherently) to his diary,
In reading his name my heart gave a peculiar kind of throb. I could have poured forth my soul in tears if I had been alone. what [sic] an inspiration new and full came to me as I stood there. I afresh gave myself to Livingston Master for the very same kind of work for Australia’s black sons and daughters which he prosecuted for Africa’s children had helped me to him as he followed them.’

Gribble returned to Australia and in 1885-6 made his own heroic journey to Western Australia, one suspects seeking the hardship and contumely that his hero had endured before him. He certainly found it, although from the local settlers more than the wildlife, and was drummed out of the colony.

Gribble then travelled extensively during 1889-1892 throughout the eastern colonies giving magic lantern slide performances to raise money for his Aboriginal mission work. In October 1891, Gribble spoke to a packed audience in Brisbane’s St. Paul's Church Sunday School room, showing scenes of his labours in building Warangesda mission in New South Wales, as well as scenery from the Bellenden Ker district, the site of his new mission, Yarrabah, in north Queensland. He drew on the classic ‘before and after’ logic that had always characterised missionary ‘propaganda’, showing what could be done to transform Indigenous peoples. He ‘illustrat[ed] his remarks by means of the magic lantern illustrations’, comprising ‘the teacher and his native assistants, felling trees by means of axes with very long handles, in order to form a clearing for the first missionary station.’ These images were contrasted with ‘more improved buildings until the most modern shape of a mission township, with most creditable edifice for a church was reached’. Portraits of Indigenous people demonstrated that they were intelligent Christians.

However in Melbourne in 1892 he took a more sensational approach in a talk entitled, ‘Amongst Cannibals’ – clearly capitalizing upon Norwegian Carl Lumholtz’s book of that title published in 1889, as well as contemporary reports of cannibalism in northern Queensland in Victorian newspapers. His urban audience would have relished the frisson of danger evoked by this taboo. The Cairns Post was less impressed: owned by anti-missionary plantation owner John Wimble, the Post attacked the ‘charming ingenuousness displayed by the reverend gentlemen who recently flashed like meteors on North Queensland in the mission line.’ Caricaturing Gribble’s media savvy, the Post wrote ‘lo! they go South with some cheaply acquired photographs of tame niggers*, and some doubtfully obtained native weapons, and they give a magic lantern entertainment and lure the half-pence from the pockets of unsuspecting youth. ... and the dear old ladies say ‘Oh what terrible risks the dear missionaries run.’ Poor Gribble was not to see Yarrabah thrive. He contracted malaria and retired to Sydney, where he died on 3 June 1893.

So my luridly heroic Livingstone slide speaks to me of this imperial network of ideas, stories and performances, in which Australians participated as much as those in the metropolitan capitals. The Che Guevara poster of his day, my slide evokes the glamorous mix of moral idealism and worldly adventure that drew young activists from around the world to tread in their hero’s footsteps – however misguided they might seem today.

*I have chosen to retain this offensive contemporary usage to convey the competing, opposed historical views of settlers and humanitarians such as Gribble.


An Edwardian dinning room in autochrome - Discussed by Lorenzo Iozzi, Senior Collection Manager of Images for History and Technology, Museums Victoria

My favourite lantern slide is an autochrome taken around 1925. It is an image of a humble sitting room in an Edwardian home. I love it because it is a celebration of light and as such, a celebration of life. The room is bursting with colour. And what colour! Deep reds, greens, blues, yellows and mauves. This is no accidental combination of colour. Autochromes were created by the additive colour process, whereby the combination of two primary colours produced a primary secondary colour. It was, therefore, a pure process, unlike the subtractive colour process in photography at the time which relied on filtering out light bands to ‘leave behind’ the remnant or unfiltered colour. For this reason, the resultant image in an autochrome was considered, quite rightly, to have some of the attributes associated with oil painting.

This is certainly a quality of our lantern slide of the room. In our image an invisible light source from the left castes dark shadows across the rug on the floor which contrast strongly with the bright daylight framed by the window on the opposite side of the room. The mirror, too, on the mantel piece, is reflecting light coming from outside, from the end of the room where the photographer stands to take the picture. The whiteness of the lacework drapery over the furniture accentuates the brilliance of the light. Colour explodes all around. The deliberate placement of the furniture, the flower arrangements and the art deco wallpaper contribute to the warmth and vibrancy of the room. We are all invited to enter and enjoy, surely! Imagine the same photograph in black and white. It would have a totally different mood.

                                                                                                           'Edwardian sitting room', Autochrome, c.1925, Museums Victoria Collection.

Our image is full of mystery. There are no people in it but you almost expect someone to open the door and come inside. The image is imbued with that much life. A measure of this is that you just want to keep looking at it. Why was a transparency of an ordinary, empty sitting room produced in the first place and for which audience? The simple desire to capture and experience the beauty of the day itself, was certainly in the photographer’s mind. This makes our image timeless. There is no story to go with our image - that we know of - and there doesn’t have to be one. Its mystery invites us to create our narrative - and many narratives - within this room, if we wish. Every time I look at this lantern slide, I create a new story around it, or rather, I keep adding to it.


'I first held a lantern slide in my hand in 1966' - Discussion by contemporary artist, Brook Andrew

Contemporary artist Brook Andrew incorporates actual magic lantern slides into his large-scale installations. He also uses magic lantern slide imagery in some of his two dimensional work. His most recent major Australian exhibition was The Right To Offend is Sacred, at the National Gallery of Victoria from 3 March to 4 June 2017. He is Lead Investigator on the Monash University Australian Research Council project Representation, Remembrance and the Monument that is interrogating the potential for memorials to become powerful public spaces where the history of the Frontier Wars can be addressed. He answered Martyn Jolly’s questions about his personal relationship to lantern slides.

“I first held a magic lantern slide in my hand in 1996 at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter. I was preparing for my first installation at a museum in Europe. It was a slide of an Aboriginal skull and I was shocked, I hadn’t realized until then the extent of the human remains trade and the teaching facilities that supported it. (Chief Investigator Joe Kember, from the University of Exeter, is currently conducting research on the large collection of lantern slides at Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum).

"In 2010 I acquired the first magic lantern slides for my archive, scenes in Western Victoria and Melbourne, which I bought from a second hand shop in Melbourne. The pristine water in the bushland scenes and the nineteenth century fashion in the street scenes fascinated me. I first included magic lantern slides in my installation for TABOO at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2012. They were images of Aboriginal children placed on fake tree branches. I presume they were made to show an anthropological view of the Aboriginal child on the 'ape' scale between ape and human. They shocked, but didn’t surprise me. They showed yet more evidence of the social and scientific practices of primitivism and racism in Australia.


[Brook Andrew, Archival Material, Installation View, Taboo, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2012 Photograph: Alex Davies]

I have mixed thoughts about one slide, of a Native Policeman on a horseback, which I  bought from a rare book dealer in Australia. The slide almost put me in a trance because it shows palpable photographic evidence of the complex stories of Native Policemen, and the way they hunted other Aboriginal people.

I am most intrigued by a slide I have never actually seen, but someone` told me about in London. I was told by a student of the Royal College of Surgeons that in the early 1980's he was shown old lantern slides of Aboriginal massacred bodies with British soldiers standing by. He said it reminded him of a hunting expedition in Africa.”





Circular Quay Sydney - Discussed by Elizabeth Hartrick

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Daisy Bates - Discussed by Nicolas Peterson

Daisy Bates - Discussed by Nicolas Peterson The red border first drew my attention to this slide that was housed with a large collection of others.  The slides apparently belonged to an academic at the University of Adelaide and a number of them were labelled as from the west coast of South Australia.  So the...

Won't You Buy My Pretty Flowers - Discussed by Martyn Jolly

Won't You Buy My Pretty Flowers - Discussed by Martyn Jolly Here is a new set of life model magic lantern slides I have just acquired. I love the twin perspectival vanishing points of the first painted backdrop, the photogrammed snow flurries in slide two, and the weirdly frozen Beckettian choreography of the passers-by in the...

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