Hot off the press….

I’m pleased to report my recent appointment as editor of Photographica World, the journal of the Photographic Collectors’ Club of Great Britain (PCCGB). In taking on this post I am following in the footsteps of Michael Pritchard who edited the journal from its foundation in 1977 through to 2002, when the editorship passed to John Marriage, in whose capable hands it has remained for the last sixteen years. Photographica World is a 60-page magazine, printed in colour and published three times a year. It is dedicated to the history of cameras and photographic culture, publishing original research, feature articles, book reviews and correspondence.

Some recent issues of ‘Photographica World’

The PCCGB has members across the UK, Europe, America, Asia and Australasia, including vintage camera and photographic collectors, museum curators, photohistorians, academics, publishers, professional photographers and dealers, as well as many others with diverse interests in the history of photographic culture and technology. Every year the PCCGB hosts an international camera fair in London – this year’s Photographica will be on Sunday 20th May. Maybe I’ll see some of you there?


Revisiting The Lost World (Hoyt,1925)

A few weeks ago I was fortunate to attend a screening of a beautifully-presented new print of The Lost World (Harry Hoyt, 1925) at Curzon Clevedon. This new (2016) restoration by Serge Bromberg’s Lobster Films runs for about 104 minutes and will almost certainly be the definitive version of the movie, restoring several fragments that haven’t been viewed for decades. (There is a rumour that existing prints of The Lost World were sought out and destroyed prior to the release of King Kong in 1933, to clear the field of any possible competition.) For many years the only version of The Lost World available was a much-mutilated 50 minute Kodascope print, but over the years successive restorations (e.g. by George Eastman House in 1998 and David Shepard two years later) introduced marked improvements in both the quality and the content, which was basically the same but with digital improvements to sound and image. It was accompanied by a new orchestral score composed by Robert Israel, which fitted  the film perfectly.

Adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1912 novel of the same name, The Lost World tells the story of an expedition led by Professor Challenger (Wallace Beery) in order to prove to his critics that dinosaurs are still living in a remote area of the Amazon jungle. Accompanying him are journalist Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes) – whose newspaper is funding the expedition- Paula White (Bessie Love), who has a journal belonging to her missing father Maple White that contains sketches of the dinosaurs, sceptical Professor Summerlee (played by the director’s brother Arthur Hoyt) and sportsman and hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone), who has romantic feelings for Paula.  The film follows their exploits in the jungle, encountering dinosaurs, learning what happened to Maple White, escaping from volcanoes and ape-men, transporting a brontosaurus back to London – and of course dealing with its inevitable escape and rampage through the city streets….

Thus particular screening was introduced by Peter Lord, cofounder of Aardman Animation. He also brought along some of the original models used in making their latest stop-motion film Early Man.

Stop-motion models for ‘Early Man’ (2017)

The growth of Aardman – from a domestic tabletop to a world-leading Oscar-winning studio – echoes the remarkable career paths of early animators such as The Lost World’s Willis O’Brien, who went on to work on King Kong, a film that inspired a young Ray Harryhausen to become O’Brien’s assistant. Aardman are perhaps best known now for Nick Park’s Wallace and Gromit films but those of a certain generation will remember the animated character ‘Morph’ who first appeared on BBC’s Take Hart in the late 1970s.

The setting for Paradise Falls in Pixar’s animated movie ‘Up’ (Docter, 2009) was clearly inspired by the cliffs in ‘The Lost World.’ The American company Pixar was associated with Lucasfilm and Apple before being bought by Disney. Unlike Aardman, stop-motion techniques have played little part in Pixar’s computer-generated animation.

The influence of The Lost World and King Kong on 20th century cinema has been enormous, and can be traced through numerous films including Hammer’s prehistoric movie cycle, the Jurassic Park franchise and other fantasy adventures. Ray Harryhausen’s work has inspired generations of animators and film-makers, yet the name of the man who inspired him is often forgotten now. Before the main feature we were treated to one of O’Brien’s earlier films, a short five-minute film R.F.D. 10,000 B.C. made for Thomas Edison’s company in 1916. This was accompanied by live music played on the Curzon’s organ by Colin Godfrey. The plot, for what it was, followed two cavemen competing for the love of a cavewoman, one a postman who used a dinosaur to carry his mail (R.F.D. stands for ‘Rural Free Delivery’, the American postal service for farms and rural settlements.)

For those who have not yet seen the restored version of The Lost World – and it’s far superior to the truncated versions shown previously on television – it is being screened as part of the Ilfracombe Film Festival on Saturday 21st April at 4 pm in the Landmark Theatre, on Ilfracombe’s Promenade. You won’t be disappointed!

Carte-de-visite of the week #13 Belle Bilton

This carte-de-visite was taken in the late 1880s and shows the Countess of Clancarty (1867-1906) – a singer, actress and music-hall entertainer better known under her stage-name of Belle Bilton. It shows her in costume and was taken in the Ebury Street studios of fashionable London photographers W. & D. Downey, opened in 1872 by William Downey (1829-1915) while his brother Daniel managed their studio in Newcastle. The Downeys took many portraits of Queen Victoria and the royal family, as well as aristocrats, society beauties and famous actresses. Belle was photographed by Downey several times, and also sat for other society photographers such as Alexander Bassano.

Background and Stage Career

Isabel Maud Penrice Bilton was born in 1867, the daughter of Sergeant John George Bilton of the Royal Engineers. Under the stage name of Belle Bilton she made her name as a music hall entertainer at the Alhambra and the Empire and other venues. Sometimes she appeared with her sister – an advert for a performance at the London Pavilion in Piccadilly in 1886 shows the ‘Sisters Bilton’ on the billing.

Lord Dunlo

Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty, using a stereoscopic camera around 1864, three years before the birth of his son.

At the Corinthian Club towards the end of April or beginning of May 1889, Belle met a young aristocrat – William, Viscount Dunlo, son of Richard Somerset Le Poer Trench, 4th Earl of Clancarty and heir to the title. Like Belle, Lord Dunlo was twenty years old, and the couple quickly fell for one another: they were married soon after, at Hampstead Registry Office, on 10 July 1889. The groom’s father was not impressed at his son’s choice of bride, and William had already incurred the Earl’s displeasure due to his lack of enthusiasm for the army career that had been planned for him. As it had already been decided that William would benefit from foreign travel in the company of a sober and morally-minded mentor, his scandalous marriage to a music hall entertainer proved the last straw: the Earl forced his newly-wedded son to sail for Australia immediately under threat of losing his inheritance. A divorce case – which in those days depended upon proving adultery – was at once initiated, with the Earl determined to use every means in his power to blacken Belle’s name and have the union dissolved with his family’s honour intact.

The Trial

Over the next few months evidence was gathered, while Belle – in the absence of her husband – continued to socialise and pursue her stage career. In April 1890 she played the title role in the ‘burlesque extravaganza’ Venus at the Plymouth’s Theatre Royal. The trial opened in July 1890 with Sir James Hannen sitting as judge, Sir Charles Russell prosecuting, and the solicitor general Frank Lockwood QC representing Belle. The adultery trial had been preceded by a separate court case in which Belle was implicated in forgery; although the matter was quite independent of her marriage to Lord Dunlo, it was clearly intended to blacken her character – an objective that was largely thwarted by her being found innocent.

Eastern Evening News (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.2

It became apparent during the adultery trial that Belle was more sinned against than sinning, and the Earl and his associates came out looking worse, having instigated various machinations to make Belle look bad. As recent events have made all too clear, rich and powerful men can be responsible for all sorts of abuse to protect their interests. When Lord Dunlo declared he believed his wife to be innocent of the charges, the case collapsed, and he returned to live with Belle. Cut off from his father’s allowance, the couple were required to live off Belle’s earnings from the theatre – estimated at around £1,500 a year. Some felt that the publicity of the court case might actually help matters:

‘I dare say the photographs of Lady Dunlo (Miss Belle Bilton) are more marketable now than ever. I don’t know if this fascinating young lady has been paid liberal terms by Bassano and the other photographers to whom she has given sittings, but she certainly deserves to remunerated handsomely. She will sell like ripe cherries from now until her divorce trial comes off.’

London and Provincial Entr’acte (Saturday 12 July 1890) p.5.

The couple did not have long to wait. Belle’s father-in-law died less than a year after the trial, aged only 57. In May 1891 her husband became the 5th Earl of Clancarty, and Belle assumed the title of Countess of Clancarty. The couple had five children, including the 6th and 7th Earls of Clancarty.

Belle with her twin sons Richard and Henry, born Devember 1891. Photographed by Bassano ca. 1893-4. Reproduced courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.

Sadly, Belle died of cancer on 31 December 1906 at Garbaldy Park, Ballinasloe, County Galway, Ireland, at the age of only 39. Carte-de-visite portraits of her – both in theatrical costume and as herself – are fairly easy to find and so it is tempting to consider building up a collection of these. Belle’s short life is intriguing for anyone with an interest in late Victorian theatre, and there is something inspiring – and remarkably topical – about the story of how this young woman refused to be crushed by powerful men who sought to silence her.