Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince 1841-1890
Artist, Inventor, Film Pioneer

Louis Le PrinceOn a bright day in October 1888, a suburban garden in Roundhay became the setting for a piece of movie history. Louis Le Prince carried his heavy prototype camera out of his in-laws’ house, Oakwood Grange, and asked four of his family to walk round the garden while he filmed them. Although only seconds survive, their images were captured for ever in what has become known as the Roundhay Garden Scene, generally acknowledged as the first moving picture. Louis Le Prince was to become famous as the father of cinematography – and as the man who disappeared.

Louis’ connection with Leeds came about when he befriended a young Englishman in Paris – John Whitley, who like Louis had studied sciences at the University of Leipzig, and shared his fascination with current scientific and technical advances. Louis originated from Metz, northeast France, where his father was an army major, and a friend of the pioneer photographer Daguerre – photography was an early interest. John Whitley’s father, Joseph, ran a brass foundry in Hunslet, Leeds, and was an enthusiast for technical innovation and development.

In 1866 Louis accompanied his friend John on a family visit to Leeds. He took a great interest in the Whitley foundry and agreed to represent the firm in Paris.  He also took an interest in John’s sister Lizzie. When her father sent her to study art in Paris the following year, they met again and married in July 1869. They chose to settle in Leeds – first in Hunslet, then at Brandon Villas, Chapeltown Road.

The next year was anxious and difficult, as Louis felt he had to join the volunteers defending Paris, besieged by the Prussian army. He returned to Leeds to work as a draughtsman at the Whitley foundry, but he and Lizzie dreamed of uniting their skills and training in art and science to develop and teach techniques of painting and enamelling on ceramics. In 1874 they set up their own School of China Painting, and moved to 33 Park Square. The unique, delicate artistic work they and their pupils produced was much admired. In 1875 two of their miniature portraits were chosen for presentation to the Duke of Edinburgh when he opened the massive Yorkshire Exhibition in Leeds, and a royal commission followed. Their paintings won awards at the Paris exhibition of 1878, when several were purchased for the French national collection. And when the monumental Cleopatra’s Needle was erected in London that year, one of their royal portraits was among the medley of objects buried beneath it, entombed in a bronze capsule made at the Whitley Foundry – still there as far as anyone knows!

Alongside teaching Louis continued to experiment with new materials and techniques, focussing particularly on photography and its commercial possibilities. But money was tight and he now had six children to support. In 1882 Lizzie’s brother John persuaded the family to move to New York to join him in a new interior design business. When this failed, Lizzie took up teaching art again while Louis worked at designing and building huge panoramic displays, a popular attraction of the time. Meanwhile he worked obsessively on his photographic experiments, convinced of the feasibility of taking and projecting moving images. He was not alone: other inventors were busy working in this potentially lucrative field, and rivalry intensified to be the first to register a patent. In 1887 Louis decided to return to Leeds to work full-time on his project. With Joseph Whitley’s support he set up a workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, where, with a devoted team including his son Adolphe, he succeeded in developing a single-lens camera, which he tried out in the Oakwood garden and filming traffic on Leeds Bridge. He also worked on projection methods and new forms of film, and managed to obtain several patents.

In 1890, just before a long-planned exhibition in New York, he went to France on business, and visited his brother in Dijon. There, on 16 September, he boarded the train back to Paris. He was never seen again. In a world without phones, no one knew he was missing for several weeks, and his distraught family in New York waited in vain for his return. No body or luggage was ever found. Was it murder, perhaps by rivals as his family thought, suicide, even a planned change of identity? The mystery remains unsolved today, fertile ground for speculation, fed by the later death of his son Adolphe in a mysterious shooting accident.

Louis’ pioneering work is remembered in Leeds by two blue plaques, one in Woodhouse Lane, the other by Leeds Bridge. And that first brief film in the garden at Oakwood can still be viewed, the jerky figures imperishable now, a poignant glimpse into the past.

Eveleigh Bradford
February 2013