01/11/2016

GEORGE ALBERT SMITH ~ PIONEER OF EARLY FILM IN BRIGHTON ...



George Albert Smith 
January 4 1864 ~ May 17 1959


Before making his name in the world of film, GA Smith had already been involved in the visual entertainment trade. He performed as a stage hypnotist, a psychic, and a magic lantern lecturer. But his films are what he is remembered for best, particularly the technical expertise that led to him developing successful colourised moving films: a method that he called Kinemacolour.


Following the death of his father, George went to live in Brighton where his mother ran a boarding house. It was there ~ often in the Aquarium ~ that his stage illusionist act began. And perhaps his skill at deceiving the eye was what led Edmund Gurney, Honorary Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research, to be entirely convinced that Smith was a genuine spiritualist and to employ him as his secretary. 


In 1892, Smith leased St Anne's Well Gardens in Hove. There, he then went on to develop the park as a popular seaside pleasure resort, gleefully described by the local press as: 'This delightful retreat ... presided over by the genial Mr G. Albert Smith, is now open ... In the hot weather the refreshing foliage of the wooded retreat is simply perfect, while one can enjoy a cup of Pekoe in the shade'.


The gardens were indeed elaborate, with hot air balloons, and parachute displays, a monkey house, a fortune teller, and a hermit living in a cave - not to mention the magic lantern shows which used clever scenery and lights to create dissolving picture shows, all of which were advertised at the time as being:"High Class Lecture Entertainments with Magnificent Lime-Light Scenery and Beautiful Dioramic Effects."


Many skills learned for this craft went on to be used in moving films - the interest that obsessed Smith after seeing the films of Robert Paul, after which he also joined forces with others in the local Brighton film industry; as well as securing a friendship with the French director, Georges Melies. 


By 1889, having acquired his first moving film camera from the Brighton-based engineer Alfred Darling, and with chemicals bought from James Williamson, a Hove chemist and fellow film pioneer, Smith erected a purpose-built glass house in the grounds of St Anne's Gardens, specifically for making films. Films such as The Kiss in the Tunnel, The Sick Kitten, The House that Jack Built, Grandma's Reading Glass, and As Seen Through a Telescope.



The Sick Kitten ~ click here to see this charming film



Many of his short comedy films (usually no more than a minute in length) starred the local comedian Tom Green, as well as Mr Smith himself, and his wife, Laura Bayley ~ with Laura being an actress who'd worked before in stage pantomimes and also in comic revue shows.




G A Smith and Laura Bayley starring together in A Kiss in the Tunnel
Click here to see the film



However, by 1904 Smith was to leave St Ann's Well Gardens and moved to Southwick in Sussex - the house he called Laboratory Lodge, which is where he was to concentrate on developing his colour film. Films that illustrated this are Woman Draped in Patterned Handkerchiefs, and A Visit to the Seaside - both created in 1908, resulting in Smith being awarded a Silver Medal by the Royal Society of Arts. 
More colour films were made until Smith and his long time partner/financier, Charles Urban were put out of business following a patent suit filed by William Friese-Green. This effectively ended Smith's career - after which he was sometimes said to be seen out on the Brighton seafront peering through his telescope - by then becoming a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society.



A Visit to the Seaside - click here to view the film



However, he was not entirely forgotten in the world of moving film. In the late 1940's, and well before his death, G A Smith was given the honour of being made a fellow of the British Film Academy. And today you can learn more about his work by visiting the Hove Museum where there is a permanent display dedicated to his genius.

4 comments:

  1. The early films were very clever... audiences must have been mesmerised back then. What I would have loved _more_ would have been St Anne's Well Gardens in Hove. Those pleasure resorts were stunning - the landscape, the seascape, amazing entertainments, lamps, the food! Smith was a genius!

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    1. I wish I could find more images of the gardens.

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  2. This seems to rely heavily on Frank Gray.

    It is not true that Smith left the SPR in the 1890s. He remained an Associate until his death, as can easily be seen by examining the SPR's membership lists.

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    1. Various sources - but I'll adapt the SPR mention. Thank you.

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