MOVING PICTURES proclaimed this 1786 broadside and what an extraordinary entertainment the Eidophusikon must have been. It predated the most famous moving pictures, the movies, by more than 100 years. Everything about the show was intended to challenge how a picture was viewed. Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, the creator of the Eidophusikon, was an accomplished French painter who at the age of thirty-one moved to London in 1771. Soon after his arrival he took a job working as a scene designer for David Garrick at the Drury Lane theatre. He made quite a name for himself for the life-like scenes he created and would master many techniques in the art of stage design and lighting that he would employ when he opened the doors for the Eidophusikon (Greek for images of nature) on February 26,1781 at his home on Lisle Street.
An evening’s entertainment consisted of as many as five tableaux, each cleverly combining a familiar scene or place with a dramatic moment. His first shows included a London View with an aurora effect, a view of Naples with a sunset and concluded with a storm at sea. The entertainment was held in one of the lushly decorated parlour rooms that could accommodate 130 people. There is only one known image of this space, a watercolor by Edward Burney showing the interior of the room before the show. There is a bench with a couple of patrons sitting and others standing around.
At the front of the room there was what can best be described as either a very large picture, or a miniature stage. The framed picture was ten feet wide and six feet high. Unlike other pictures however the opening had a depth of eight feet “setting the stage” for a very different sort of picture. The audience sat facing the picture, then the lights would be dimmed, the show would begin and the scene would appear to come to life. With the artful use of lighting nightfall would appear as the sun slowly faded, or the brilliance of an aurora would light up the painted sky and possibly most powerfully an ominous sky would darken, foretelling an oncoming storm, soon to be joined by the appearance of lightning, accompanied by the sound of thunder, and a three dimensional mechanically controlled ship built to scale would glide across the picture sailing into a distance created by painting on several different panels.
It all must have been quite magical. There had been other attempts to change how pictures were viewed in the eighteenth century. The peepshow employed many of them. Martin Engelbrecht executed large numbers of views-scenes created on multiple layers of paper- to be viewed in parlour peepshows which attempted to make a scene more life-like by creating depth. Viewers of large public square peepshows often saw pin-pricked pictures, which in candlelight gave the appearance of a day scene transforming to night. There were even hand-painted scenes on multiple layers of glass created to entertain viewers and create a multi-dimensional painting. Yet none had movement and all were limited to the constraints of the size of the peepshow box.
Loutherbourg employed the wide array of skills he had successfully used in the theatre as painter, set designer, lighting expert, creator of mechanical moving figures in creating his Eidophusikon. He opened the peepshow box, created room behind and on the side of the picture opening, so that he could manipulate what was seen and bring a mixture of lighting, movement, sound and painting together to create a very new and different form of entertainment. Part of Loutherbourg’s genius was to create a shared space where a larger group could seemingly enter a picture and experience the scene. His choice of how large to make his “screen” was an interesting one. He clearly didn’t want to replicate a theatre, an experience the public already knew. He chose instead two dimensional pictures to see if he could create a new experience when viewing a picture.
This remarkable show closed at Lisle Street after less than two years. It did, however, reappear numerous times in different places. The next appearance was in 1786 at rooms on Exeter Exchange with increased seating for 200 people. Three years later another form of moving pictures, the Panorama, would take London by a storm.