Hallam and Lionel's Magic Lantern

On display at Farringford is a ‘Magic Lantern’ which projected images painted on glass slides onto the walls.

Albert Einstein once said that ‘play is the highest form of research’, and this is perhaps not only true of science, but also true of poetry. Farringford House is stuffed full of toys and games and it is easy to imagine Alfred, Lord Tennyson playing alongside his two sons, Hallam and Lionel.

A Precursor To Cinema

Amongst the objects on display is a ‘Magic Lantern’ which projected images painted on glass slides onto the walls using a light inside of it (often a candle) and a series of mirrors, it was a precursor to cinema, and in 1861 Emily Tennyson wrote that the Magic Lantern given to Hallam and Lionel ‘delights them’. Its ability to create dreamy scenes before the eye, led to the Magic Lantern being used as a metaphor throughout its brief popularity in the mid-nineteenth century, perhaps the most famous literary use of it being in George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’

‘Our moods are apt to bring with them images which succeed each other like the magic-lantern pictures of a doze; and in certain states of dull forlornness Dorothea all her life continued to see the vastness of St. Peter's, the huge bronze canopy, the excited intention in the attitudes and garments of the prophets and evangelists in the mosaics above, and the red drapery which was being hung for Christmas spreading itself everywhere like a disease of the retina.’ – ‘Middlemarch’


The magic lantern was most frequently used in Phantasmagoria, or horror shows, making people believe they had seen ghosts or spirits. Images reflected in the darkness were therefore fantastical, treading the line between real and unreal – allowing a brief moment of access to the supernatural. In ‘The Lover’s Tale’ Tennyson writes of memory in terms of a Magic Lantern. 

‘So those fair eyes
Shone on my darkness, forms which ever stood
Within the magic cirque of memory,
Invisible but deathless, waiting still
The edict of the will to reassume
The semblance of those rare realities
Of which they were the mirrors. Now the light
Which was their life, burst through the cloud of thought
Keen, irrepressible.’ – ‘The Lover’s Tale’ 

The Lady of Shallot

The memory becomes a space made of light and mirrors, a ‘magic cirque’, showing ‘rare realities’. Another poem whose story is perhaps more related to the ‘Magic Lantern’ than it first appears is Tennyson’s ‘The Lady of Shallot’ cursed to see the world through a mirror’s dreamy reflection, weaving it on her loom.

‘But in her web she still delights
To weave the mirror's magic sights, 
For often thro' the silent nights 
A funeral, with plumes and lights 
       And music, came from Camelot: 
Or when the moon was overhead 
Came two young lovers lately wed; 
'I am half sick of shadows,' said 
       The Lady of Shallott.’ – The Lady of Shallot

 Interestingly, the word ‘Phantasmagoria’ has changed in usage over time, it is now a descriptive term for a series of fantastical images that pass through the mind, as in a dream. Perhaps the Magic Lantern is therefore both a poetic inspiration and also a form of poetry itself, for in Tennyson’s poetry especially, the reader feels caught up in a dream, as a series of fantastical images pass before our minds’ eyes.  

See also Keeping Christmas at Farringford

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