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Dead medium: The Fantasmagoria, part one
From: (Thomas Weynants)

Source(s): "Servants of Light" article by Thomas Weynants (((Bruce Sterling remarks: Mr.Weynant, a continental member of the far-famed Magic Lantern Society, is rightly proud of his antique fantasmagorie discovery, and has seen fit to share his expertise with the Dead Media list.)))

"HE WHO DOES NOT HONOUR THE PAST IS NOT WORTHY OF THE PRESENT" (Inscription of the Fortress of Douaumont, France.)

Being Excerpts from:

The Fantasmagoria, or, Virtual Reality Techniques During the French Revolution and the Early 19th Century: Some Examples as Seen in Contemporary Experiments.

by Thomas Weynants

The fantascope lantern and accessories used for the techniques described here were discovered seven years ago in a French castle called Chateau de Moisse.

The site is located in the north part of the department "La Creuse," 340km south of Paris. The origins of the Chateau de Moisse, situated near a small village in the Limousin region, go back to 1843 when the young Earl Claude Francois de Beaufranchet build his new home there.

The Old House of the Earls de Beaufranchet was founded in the year 1250 at another location, the Chateau de Beaufranchet, in the small village of Saillant, part of the Puy de Dome region.

With neither fortune nor influence, the young Earl Claude Francois de Beaufranchet took up residence in Paris in about 1780, and lived through the troubled years of the French Revolution without major difficulties. During the Directoire (1795 - '99) he wisely chose to side with the young General Bonaparte. The latter, while becoming the Great Emperor, gave permission to de Beaufranchet to play a public role. This enabled the young Earl to carve out his fortune. Soon after the beginning of the Restoration, de Beaufranchet fell out of favour with Louis XVIII and left Paris to establish himself in the department "La Creuse."

Using his new fortune, in 1816 he purchased a small castle in Tercillat and, later, several grounds in the area of Moisse. Gradually, he purchased several farmsteads and eventually became the owner of 1100 hectares. In 1843 he build a new residence the "Chateau de Moisse" and lived there comfortably in the midst of his property and tenant farmers.


Although an enormous family archive was discovered by the present owner, sadly, no information concerning the fantascope & accessories has been traced. This makes the date of purchase and origin of the apparatus difficult to determine. Possible manufacturers include Lerebours, Dubosq, Molteni and Chevalier. Even though this optical treasure looks more or less complete, I'm convinced that a lot of interesting accessories to the fantasmagoria (or phantasmagoria) have been irredeemably lost.

Fortunately, the Fantascope was found with three different lenses, each mounted on a wooden board, and named here after their respective purposes: Fantasmagoria lens, Megascope lens, and Dissolving view lens. The latter lens set (obviously double) will not be explained here since this article is limited to fantasmagorie effects. However, it is appropriate to note that the presence of a cat's eye on each dissolving lens (the only known example?) needs further research in order to reveal possible fantasmagoric use.

For the projection of a white shadow or "Ombre Blanche"== a technique most suitable for fantasmagoria applications == an extra wooden board with a 16-centimetre circular opening completes the above set of lenses. This board is used as an adapter for white shadows and is mounted on the fantascope lantern. This arrangement allows light leaving the lantern housing to pass through only the cut-out parts of the "Ombre Blanche."

Unfortunately, no original white shadows were found among the accessories, although one would expect them in this context. Most likely they were burned in the same fire where six years ago a friend, Rik Soenen, found a partially destroyed daguerreotype. (...)

As luck would have it, twenty-three wonderful hand- painted slides survived. Among them, ten depict beautiful fantasmagoria subjects such as a Skull, a Skeleton, a Devil, and the Bleeding Nun.

These are typical "gothic horror" subjects of the time. The theme of the nun, for example, was inspired by a character from one of the most famous novels in this genre, *The Monk* by Lewis Matthew (1796). Furthermore, great historic figures of the time were transformed into fantasmagoria subjects via these handpainted slides, for example two portraits of Bonaparte.

Such historically important figures illustrate another theme in the fantasmagoria. Other examples are portraits of Marat, Robbespierre, Louis XVI, Danton, etc., which were projected onto smoke "curtains" with the help of a hidden lantern. The technique of smoke projection is not dealt with here but will be the subject of future experiments. (...)

A further 4 hand-painted slides were inspired by Greek Mythology, religion and gods (other important inspirational sources for the fantasmagoria). For example, "Hero & Leandre," "Hebe," "l'Education d'Achille," and "l'Enlevement de Dejanire."

A most intriguing and less expected projection accessory, is an animated marionette representing a skeleton opening his tomb. A wooden decor-adapter is fixed inside the fantascope/megascope in order to project such marionettes, backed by a variety of different decors; for example, a graveyard. A special copper hook enabled the fantasmagore (lanternist) to open and close the curtain in front of the opaque scene in order to unveil the decor without any light escaping from the apparatus.

Due to the rarity of the marionette, some further explanation is essential. This intriguing projection puppet, still in mint condition, was previously known only from prints in contemporary books and catalogues; for example, Molteni's catalogue "Appareilles et accessoires pour projection," and a book by the same manufacturer, "Instruction pratique sur l'emploi des appareils de projection, lanterne magique, fantasmagorie, polyorama" (1892, fourth edition).

The same illustrations were used by l'Abbe Moigno in his book *L'Art de projection* (1872). A comparable marionette, of the same subject but of another design/mechanism and origin, is in the collection at the Conservatoire National des Art et Metiers in Paris, together with several other curious fantasmagoria accessories.

Furthermore, a winged hourglass is painted on the tomb of the Moisse marionette, exactly as depicted in the illustrations used both by Molteni and l'Abbe Moigno for their respective catalogues/books.

This fantasmagoric pictogram simply shows that time is running fast. Combined with the appearing skeleton, we understand that death is coming sooner than we expect! The tomb, initially closed, starts to open slowly, pushed by a bony hand. A skull begins to appear, wich turns towards the spectators and at the same time opens and closes its mouth as if to speak to the audience. Ventriloquists performed this task.

(In the section entitled "A Night at the Graveyard," another marionette, digging with a scythe, is used to explain other curious effects. This particular replica marionette, based on Molteni's illustrations combined with the knowledge learned from the original tomb version, was wonderfully reconstructed by Mike Bartley and Janet Tamblin some years ago.)

A "lampe moderateur" (invented by Franchot in 1837),the original illuminant for the fantascope, completes the list of accessories discovered at Chateau de Moisse. This type of illuminant put oil under pressure in order to obtain a maximum light output. The addition of a large concave mirror-reflector improves this effect.

Thomas Weynants ( Member of "The Magic Lantern Society of Great-Britain" address:
Sint-Pietersnieuwstraat 63, Ghent B-9000, Belgium, Europe
Fantasmagore - Photographer - collector
Specific Interests: Early multimedia techniques, Pre- cinema: Fantasmagorie, Optical toys; Conjuring Arts & Physique, Amusante & Illusions, 19th.Century Photography & Early Film, Animation.