Learning to see Le Prince

This week on the Secret Library we are delighted to welcome back guest author Irfan Shah, who has previously written for us on Leeds’ contribution to the development of photography. In this article, roughly coinciding with the 130th anniversary of the disappearance of Louis Le Prince (September 16 1890), Irfan shares some exciting news about his continuing research into Leeds’ place in the early history of cinema…

Photograph of the Belmont Mansion in New York, with a figure in the foreground

Recently, I have been poring over an old photograph of a tall, thin man whose face is, in the picture, indistinct. The man is standing next to a dog and they are both in front of a large wooden house in New York sometime in the Nineteenth (or very early Twentieth) Century.

I have been wondering whether it might be a photograph of the inventor Louis Le Prince who, in 1888, shot a series of films here in Leeds but who also lived in New York for several years in the house that is in the photograph. There are very few photographs of Le Prince and the ones that do exist have, over the years, been copied and cropped, etched, colourised and flipped so that it seems there are more than there really are. However, all these various copies are taken from just seven photographs.  Any ‘new’ likeness of Le Prince would therefore be a precious thing, but as you can see, the man in the photograph is little more than an outline, a ghostly presence about whom I can do little more than speculate and imagine.

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Louis Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 and came to Leeds in 1866 where he worked for brass founders, Joseph Whitley & Co (later Whitley Partners); he also taught and practised art and photography in the town; married and started a family here and involved himself in Leeds’ thriving artistic and intellectual circles.

In 1881, he accompanied his brother-in-law, John Robinson Whitley, to New York on a short-lived business venture and, after it had ended, stayed on in the city where he started designing ‘apparatus for producing animated photographic pictures’.  In 1886, Le Prince applied for a US patent for a multi-lens camera and projector, and in 1887, he returned to Europe to continue his work in Leeds and Paris and that year shot fourteen frames (slightly out of sequence as the multi-lens shutters had misfired) onto a single glass plate.

At some point, Le Prince turned from the multi-lens to a single lens camera and, back in Leeds in 1888, shot the films on which his reputation rests. The Roundhay Garden Scene, shot in October 1888, was filmed on the grounds of Roundhay Cottage, his father-in-law’s house. The surviving footage feels like a charming and loosely choreographed piece in which Le Prince’s mother-in-law, Sarah Whitley, and a family friend, Annie Hartley, shuffle about, amused but self-conscious, while Le Prince’s eldest son, Adolphe, and his father-in-law, Joseph Whitley, playfully circle them, treading paths that seem carefully designed to keep everyone within shot at all times.  Also filmed at Roundhay Cottage was a sequence showing Adolphe sidestepping elegantly whilst playing an accordion, while a third film showed traffic moving across Leeds Bridge.

Le Prince worked obsessively on his invention, in secret and at various locations across Leeds, struggling with the projection of his images. At some point, he agreed to return to New York and demonstrate his films in public and was due to set sail towards the end of 1890. Before sailing to the States, however, Le Prince went on a trip to France with friends, and while there, visited his brother, Albert, in Dijon. According to Albert, Le Prince boarded the Dijon to Paris train on September 16th 1890. However, Le Prince was never seen again, creating by his absence, one of the great Victorian mysteries.

Which brings us back to our photograph, itself a small mystery. I have been researching the story of Le Prince for several years and so this speculative identification of him in the photograph could well be a case of wishful thinking. And so, I should lay out the reasons why I think it might be him:

It was published in the 1920’s, in an article by Merritt Crawford, about the inventor, and below the image ran the following text:

The old Belmont Mansion in New York, near Broadway and West 169th Street, where Le Prince took his first experimental motion pictures. Now the site of the 102nd Engineers’ Regt. Armory[sic]

This means that the photograph was not taken especially for the article, and as the armoury in question was built in 1911, it means that the photograph was already over a decade old when it was published.  Crawford obtained much of the information for his article from Le Prince’s own family, particularly his wife Lizzie and daughters, Marie and Aimée, and so there is a fair chance that the picture came from them and therefore was more than likely taken during the Le Princes’ tenure there in the 1880’s. And so, while it is still speculative, it is not unreasonable to suggest that this photograph of the house where Le Prince lived, was taken while he lived there.

What other clues are there? The figure itself is little more than a silhouette and yet the few spots of detail that can be seen, may yet help us. Look at the photograph of the Le Prince family on the steps of the same building, Belmont House, in 1885 (below). Louis is sitting on the right of the picture, almost edged out of the frame by his charismatic, swaggering brother-in-law, John Whitley. We now have one reference point for the inventor’s appearance during his New York years, and a reference for how he looked on that particular day.

Photograph of seven people, including two children, plus two dogs

Compare that with the figure in the Merritt Crawford picture who seems tall (and Le Prince was around six foot three) with thin legs and is wearing a jacket rather than a coat, which hangs no lower than the top of his thigh, as with Le Prince in the reference photograph (and unlike John Whitley in the same picture). The figure appears to be wearing a straw boater, the same hat that Le Prince wears on the steps of Belmont House.

The sun, which is not particularly high, is away to the right of the picture, casting long shadows to the left. The figure is facing the sun and the tuft of white around the figure’s chin and neck might therefore be the sun caught on the mutton chop whiskers of the man.

The dog beside him resembles a black spaniel, the same breed seen on the steps of Belmont House, sitting with the Le Prince children.

And that’s it, really. It is too little to be sure either way, and yet, it is hard not to look and to keep looking at the photograph and to at least imagine it is him, and in doing so, we pay attention to the image and to the man and to the story.

Le Prince’s wife, Lizzie, wrote an unpublished, unfinished memoir of her husband in which she told the following anecdote:

…he [Le Prince] told me that when his machines were perfected he intended to make a journey to Japan, as he believed some intricate color [sic] problems could best be solved there;….. I shared the opinion when a Japanese art commissioner at the Chicago World’s Fair explained that in their language they have no equivalent for our ‘learning to draw’ but use the expression ‘learning to see’, and he pointed to a print of a class of girls sketching through a window overlooking a garden, and entitled ‘Learning to See a Garden’

Piecing together the fascinating story of Le Prince has led me back to Leeds Central Library again and again. I have spent hours reading through the newspapers of the day on microfiche here; poured over tithe maps that the staff have patiently and enthusiastically dug out for me; looked over police records, and stumbled into the odd alcove picking books up at random and, remarkably, finding new information there on Le Prince’s involvement with Leeds Fine Art Club and the Yorkshire Fine Art Society (for whom he exhibited work, hung in the same halls as those by Turner, Cotman and Atkinson Grimshaw.) I have found material here on everything from the Franco-Prussian War to the Yorkshire Exhibition of 1875 to the unveiling of a memorial plaque to Le Prince in 1930, all of which adds to the story. However, as with the photograph, the more we look at it all and the more we learn, the more we want to know about this incredible man who, according to his assistant, Fred Mason:

[was] most gentle and considerate…an inventor of an extremely placid disposition which nothing could ruffle

And I can only suggest that anyone wanting to find out more, in this, the 130th anniversary year of his disappearance, comes and explores the wonderful material here in the Leeds Central Library, particularly in the Local and Family History section. It is, after all, the ideal place to come to learn to see Le Prince.


To find out more about accessing the resources Irfan mentions in this article, please contact the Local and Family History department on 0113 37 86982 or via localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk

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