The Lantern Slides of Old London
Two years ago, I became enraptured by a hundred-year-old collection of four thousand lantern slides. They were once used for educational lectures by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society at the Bishopsgate Institute in Spitalfields. When Stefan Dickers became archivist there, he discovered the slides in dusty old boxes – abandoned and forgotten since they became obselete. Yet over the last decade, it has become apparent that these slides, which were ignored for so long, are one of the greatest treasures in the collection. And it is my delight to be the one responsible for publishing a selection of these wonderful images in print for the first time in my London Album this week.
When I was first offered the opportunity of presenting these lantern slides which have been unseen for generations, I was overwhelmed by the number of pictures and did not know where to start. The first to catch my fancy were the ancient signs and symbols, dating from an era before street numbering located addresses and lettered signs advertised trades to Londoners.
Before long, I grew spellbound by the slide collection because, alongside the famous landmarks and grand occasions of state, there were pictures of forgotten corners and of ordinary people going about their business. It was a delight to discover hundreds of images of things that people do not usually photograph and I was charmed to realise that the anonymous photographers of the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society were as interested in pubs as they were in churches.
The more I studied the glass slides, the more joy I found in these arcane pictures, since every one contained the rich potential of hidden stories, seducing the imagination to flights of fancy regarding the ever-interesting subject of Old London. Once I had published The Signs of Old London, I realised there were many other such sets to be found among the slides, as a result of the systematic recording of London which underscored the original project by the London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, a hundred years ago, and parallels my own work in Spitalfields Life, today.
If you cast your eye over the list of categories at the end of this story, that I chose to arrange these slides, you will see that I arranged them quite literally – in terms of doors, or night, or dinners, or streets, or staircases. I did this because I was interested to explore how the pictures might speak to me and to you, the readers. No evidence has survived to indicate in what sequence or order they were originally shown and it was my intention to avoid imposing any grand narratives of power or poverty, although these pictures do speak powerfully of these subjects. Recognising that objects and images are capable of many interpretations, I am one that prefers museums which permit the viewer to decide for themselves, rather than be presented with artefacts subject to a single meaning within an ordained story and so, with the Album, we have presented the pictures and invited the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Equally, in publishing the slides, we chose not to clean them up or remove imperfections and dirt. Similarly, we did not standardise the colour to black or a uniform sepia, either. Instead, we have cherished the subtle variations of hues present in these slides and savoured the beautiful colour contrasts between them, when laid side by side. There is a melancholic poetry in these shabby images, in which their damage and their imperfections speak of their history, and I came to glory in the patina and murk.
Above all, in publishing these pictures in my Album, I wanted to communicate the pleasure I have found in scrutinising them at length and entering another world imaginatively through the medium of this sublime photography.
Today I publish a serendipitous selection of glass slides which fascinate me but that did not make it into the book – to provide you with a little idle distraction to pass the time until the Album is published later this week.
In the Inns of Court
At Eltham Palace
At Euston Station
The Anchor at Bankside
Crocodiles at the Natural History Museum
Reading Room at the British Museum
In Fleet St
In Fleet St
St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell
Between the inner & outer dome of St Paul’s
Along the Embankment
The Old Dick Whittington, Clothfair, Smithfield
Firemen take a tea break
Lightermen on the Thames
Flood in Water St, Tower of London
The White Tower, London’s oldest building
Glass slides courtesy of Bishopsgate Institute
Take a look at these sets of the glass slides of Old London