Saturday, 4 January 2014

George Albert Smith at 150

George Albert Smith

Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth at Cripplegate in London of George Albert Smith on 4 January 1864.  His name is often mentioned in connection with the development of film language as a member of the “Brighton School,” film pioneers living on the south coast who flourished at the turn of the twentieth century, and also as the inventor of Kinemacolor, the first commercially successful film ‘natural’ (though it wasn’t quite) colour system.  The producer Sir Michael Balcon called him “the father of the British film industry.”  That may seem hyperbolic, however, Smith clearly had a profound influence on the formulation of film language as it developed from its single-shot origins.  Even so, this recognition, while merited, fails to acknowledge the breadth of his achievements, and it is that breadth that I think makes him such an absorbing figure.

As well as on film, Smith’s impact was also felt in psychical research, where he participated in telepathy experiments with the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in its very early days, beginning while he was still a teenager.  These experiments contributed to the foundations of the Society’s theoretical edifice.  In addition, he investigated paranormal phenomena for the SPR (including spending thirteen months living in a haunted house with his wife Laura Bayley), and performed significant secretarial duties for one of its key figures, Edmund Gurney.  Trevor H. Hall, whose books were marked by hostility to the early figures in the SPR, and who span a yarn which involved Smith triggering events that led Gurney to commit suicide, called Smith “one of the most interesting and bizarre characters in the history of psychical research.”  “Interesting” is certainly accurate.  In addition for a period Smith ran a pleasure garden, St Ann’s Well, at Hove with great energy, and was a lantern-slide lecturer.  What tied all these seemingly disparate activities together was a vigorous entrepreneurialism.  He ended by investing in property and enjoying a long retirement until his death at the age of 95 in 1959.

Unfortunately the heterogeneous nature of his accomplishments has meant that he has remained an elusive figure, with the exception of his filmmaking years at St Ann’s Well.  Worse, the fact that he is better known in some areas than others has led to distortions in past discussions of his career, as specialists focus on those aspects of direct relevance to their own work and rely on a narrow range of secondary sources for the parts with which they are less concerned.  As attention has mostly been directed to Smith’s contribution to film language, his psychical research efforts have often been presented in a bastardised form, partly because the minutiae of the theoretical discussions can be difficult to unravel, and partly because experiments with which he was associated have been dogged by accusations of fraud.  There is much to be done to provide an integrated account of all these strands.

Smith’s life has long been an interest of mine, to the extent of producing a PhD thesis on him.  I am continuing my study, and would be pleased to hear from anyone with unpublished material (letters, documents, photographs etc.) relating to Smith, or information on surviving relatives.  In the meantime, let’s toast a fascinating man who deserves to be even better known.