Leeds School of Arts

The lost films of Louis Le Prince: A talk for Heritage Open Days Festival

Much of the story of film pioneer, Louis Le Prince, has been neglected. We are so fascinated by the idea that he shot the world’s first films in Leeds (before disappearing in 1890) that the rest of the inventor’s life and work has been neglected. My short lecture as part of the Heritage Open Days Festival, The Lost Films of Louis Le Prince, is about looking, about paying attention and about re-evaluating what we think we know about this ingenious inventor.

Archive photo of a young man playing the accordion.

In 1888, Louis Le Prince shot what many people now consider to be the world’s first ‘films'. He shot them here in Leeds – and in fact he projected some of them back onto a white sheet hung up in a workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, which is within the footprint of where Leeds Beckett’s Northern Film School is now.

Fragments of some of Le Prince’s sequences survive as copies and can be seen online quite easily. These brief surviving bursts of movement, known now as Roundhay Garden Scene, Accordion Scene and Leeds Bridge Scene, are tantalising glimpses of what Le Prince was busy capturing in the town before Thomas Edison had even built his famous kinetoscope or the Lumières made their iconic films.

Watching them, we cannot help but wonder what might have been, had Le Prince not disappeared on 16th September 1890 after boarding a train to Paris.

But much of the story of Le Prince has been neglected and - so in thrall are we to the twin ideas of ‘firstness’ and ‘disappearance’ - the rest of the inventor’s life and work has been neglected. My short lecture, The Lost Films of Louis Le Prince, which is offered as a partnership event between Leeds School of Arts & Heritage Open Days Festival, is about looking, about paying attention and about re-evaluating what we think we know about this ingenious inventor.

This article is designed to run alongside my lecture but not to cover all the same material. So, I thought it would be a good opportunity to write briefly about something that isn’t included in the talk but that connects with the idea of looking more closely at Le Prince’s work.

In 2019, I wrote an article for History Today in which I suggested that the fragments of motion picture sequences (Roundhay, Accordion, Leeds Bridge) that we can find online, were not the images that were projected back during Le Prince’s lifetime.

Images that were projected back were fixed onto individual glass plates and fed through a projector. The images we have appear to still be on photographic strip that had been discarded somewhere in Le Prince’s workshop, picked up by Le Prince’s friend, Richard Wilson, given back to his family and animated recently using computer software. However, look at the two images below.

Archive images of the Leeds Bridge film made by Louis Le Prince.

Glass plates of Leeds Bridge Scene, one of the only surviving sequences of Louis Le Prince's films.

These images, printed in several Leeds newspapers in December 1930, are from the Leeds Bridge Scene but they’re not in the online animated sequences. These were picked up from Le Prince’s abandoned workshop by his assistant Fred Mason and given to newspapers to use in 1930. And these two images were on plates (almost certainly made from glass).

What you see now, is an image of an iPhone photo of a century-old, yellowing newspaper report showing a picture taken from plates, and so we can only guess at the original quality, but it’s exciting to think how much sharper it most probably was.

What’s interesting is that while Richard Wilson managed to find some discarded paper strips of images in the workshop, Fred Mason picked up some glass plates, which means these two images were in fact, very possibly part of a sequence that was actually played back in 1889 or 1890. This would mean that they are the only two images that we can see today that once came alive, in secret, before Le Prince and one or two trusted assistants and friends.

It would be ironic, if all this were the case, that the only animations we have, were never animated while Le Prince was alive, and that the only surviving images that were, lie forgotten, hidden in plain sight in a century-old newspaper report. But that irony is typical of the story of Le Prince: most things that we think we know about him are not quite true.

The Lost Films of Louis Le Prince is an attempt to get people to pay a little more attention to the sequences by Le Prince that we already know about, as well as introducing the idea that at least three other sequences were shot by him in Leeds. It is an attempt to reach past the subjects of ‘firstness’ and disappearance and say something new about an inventor whose true genius has yet to be fully appreciated.

Bookings are open for The Lost Films of Louis Le Prince. To book your place, visit the event page. And to find out more about Louis Le Prince, visit louisleprince.net.

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