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E.G.Robertson and the Phantasmagoria

Étienne-Gaspard Robertson (1763–1837)—originally 'Robert'—was born in Liège, Belgium, the son of a rich merchant. From an early age he was fascinated by the supernatural. Sent to Louvain to study philosophy, he began to develop a voracious appetite for the study of all branches of physics and the natural sciences, as well as proficiency in art. On his return to Liège he formed a close acquaintance with an optical instrument maker, François Laurent Villette (1729–1809). In his mid-twenties, Robertson had made up his mind to become a great painter—he had already won a gold medal. (All these skills would prove useful in developing his 'Fantasmagoria' shows.) Despite the protestations of his parents, who tried to encourage him to enter the priesthood, Robertson set out for Paris.1

On his way to Paris he saw a conjurer perform some magic, and with his background in physics he immediately understood how the trick had been done. The seed was planted.2

Initially supporting himself as a miniature portrait painter, and later by tutoring, his circumstances gradually improved. In his spare time he attended lectures in natural science at the College of France, and was eventually able to afford the relatively expensive lectures by Jacques Alexandre Charles (1746–1823)—who pioneered the use of hydrogen gas for balloon flight. Charles' flamboyant lectures were also seminal in Robertson's Fantasmagoria.

Robertson first came to public notice in 1796 when he proposed to the Directoire a scheme for burning up the British fleet with a gigantic assemblage of mirrors designed to concentrate the sun's rays on a distant object until it caught fire. 3

In 1792–3 Robertson apparently saw one of Phillipstahl's magic lantern shows4 and recognized the uncanny illusionistic potential of the new device, and with his usual flamboyance exploited the magic lantern's pseudo-necromantic power to new heights. He called it the "Fantasmagoria" from "Fantasm"—"ghost", and "agora"—"gathering", so a fantasmagoria was a "gathering of ghosts".

Roberton's Phantasmagoria

The first performance took place at the Pavilion de l'Èchiquier (in Paris) on January 23, 1798. An advertisement in the Journal de Paris (January 20) informs us:

Fantasmagorie ... by citizen E-G. Robertson: apparitions of Spectres, Phantoms and Ghosts, such as must appear or could appear in any time, in any place and among any people. Experiments with the new fluid known by the name of Galvanism, whose application gives temporary movement to bodies whose life has departed. An artist noted for his talents will play the Harmonica.5

When Robertson opened his show at 6pm, the 60 seats were soon filled. At a later performance he had to drop several items to accommodate the crowds. Robertson soon realized that not only was the theater too small, but that his fantasmagoria might make him rich and famous. An attendee describes the show:

A decemvir [member of the ruling body] of the republic has said that the dead return no more, but go to Robertson's exhibition and you will soon be convinced of the contrary, for you will see the dead returning to life in crowds. Robertson calls forth phantoms and legends of spectres. In a well-lighted apartment in the Pavilion de l'Èchiquier I found myself seated a few evenings since with some sixty or seventy people. At seven o'clock a pale thin man entered the room where we were sitting, and after extinguishing the candles he said 'Citizens and gentlemen, I am not one of those adventurers and impudent swindlers who promise more than they can perform. I have assured the public in the Journal de Paris, that I can bring the dead to life, and I shall do so. Those of the company who desire to see the apparitions of those who were dear to them, but who have passed away from this life through sickness or otherwise have only to speak and I shall obey their commands'. A moment of silence followed, and a haggard looking man with dishevelled hair and sorrowful eyes rose in the midst of the assemblage and exclaimed 'As I have been unable in an official journal to re-establish the worship of Marat, I should at least be glad to see his shadow'. Robertson immediately threw upon the brazier containing lighted coals, two glasses of blood, a bottle of vitriol, a few drops of aqua fortis and two numbers of the journal des Homme Litres and there instantly appeared in the midst of the smoke caused by the burning of these substances, a hideous livid phantom armed with a dagger, and wearing the red cap of Liberty. The man at whose wish the phantom had been evoked seemed to recognize Marat, and rushed forward to embrace the vision, but the ghost made a frightful grimace and disappeared. Robertson threw onto the brazier a few sparrow's feathers, a grain or two of phosphorus and a dozen dried butterflies. A beautiful woman with her bosom uncovered and her hair floating about her soon appeared and smiled on the young man with the most tender regard and sorrow. A grave looking individual sitting alongside of me suddenly exclaimed 'Heavens! it's my wife come to life again', and he rushed from the room, apparently fearing that what he saw was a phantom.6.

One evening Robertson received an unplanned challenge: produce the phantom of Louis XVI. According to a journalist who attended, Robertson cleverly replied:

I had a recipe for this sort of thing before the [French] Revolution but have now lost it. It is probable that I cannot ever find it again, and it is therefore impossible to bring back the Kings of France.7

Robertson claimed he never said it, one would think that his reply had deftly navigated the politics of his day, but the authorities shut down his show anyway. Mockingly, Robertson says: They searched everywhere where there might be any trace of a ghost, and at that point, I had the thought, confirmed before and since, that to run after shadows and to grasp at phantoms, in order to transform them into realities, often very fatal, is one of the principal means of the existence and one of the most frightful necessities of the secret police.8

The authorities didn't find the evidence they were looking for, but neither did they allow him to reopen his show. So instead Robertson went to Bordeaux for a few weeks, giving presentations of his fantasmagoria there and enjoying his first balloon ascent. Finally returning to Paris, he discovered that the very same Pavilion de l'Èchiquier was now hosting a rival phantasmagoria show, the producers being the owner of the Pavilion and two of Robertson's former assistants. Robertson decided to re-launch his show on a more elaborate scale.9

He chose the eerie Convent des Capucines. The convent and its chapel had been built in 1688, and abandoned by the nuns at the outset of the Revolution. "What more suitable place than a vast abandoned chapel in the middle of a cloister, littered with broken gravestones 'heaped up in hundreds' outside the church? Here his audience might imagine the ghosts arising in a disturbed passion from real sepulchers." Robertson's premier exhibition at the Convent occurred on January 3, 1799, at 7:30pm. As usual, the music was supplied by a glass armonica.10

The glass armonica was Robertson's favored instrument. He noted that it contributed 'powerfully to the effects of the fantasmagoria, in preparing not only the minds but the very senses for strange impressions by a melody so sweet that it sometimes gave great irritation to the nervous system'. The armonica can produce a somewhat monotonous sound, if desired, and Robertson put that to use: he observed that 'a uniform noise puts thought to sleep; all the ideas seem to concentrate on one and the same object and one and the same impression'.11

Robertsons fantasmagorie at the Capucine convent was enormously popular—it ran for four years, and the Convent grounds became a center for other popular amusements.12

Robertson's success naturally attracted competition in spite of the patent he filed in February of 1799. In 1800 he filed suit to shut down a rival show; there was a temporary injunction, but Robertson lost—because he hadn't personally invented any of the technology he was using, he simply had the imagination to use it in a new way—which wasn't patentable. Legal battles continued for another two years—in the end Robertson lost, with Robertson having to pay a negligible settlement. 13.

So in 1803 Robertson took to the road, largely occupying himself with ballooning, but as the reigning authority on fantasmagoria shows he still staged occasional exhibitions and dispensed private advice. Between 1803 and his triumphant comeback season of fantasmagoria shows in Paris in 1814, he visited Vienna, Prague, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and the major cities in Germany.14

He was also a balloonist, setting an altitude record in Hamburg in 1803. He later accompanied the Russian ambassador to China, where he demonstrated ballooning technique in the 1820's.15

Various 'copy-cats' produced fantasmagoria shows throughout Europe, including England, where a popular effect was changing the image of the (British traitor) Benjamin Franklin into a skeleton16! I haven't been able to determine whether these shows, which were not under Robertson's auspices—in England or anywhere else—were accompanied by the glass armonica.

Charles Dickens summarized Robertson:

He was a charmer who charmed wisely,—who was a born conjurer, inasmuch as he was gifted with a predominant taste for experiments in natural science,—and he was useful man enough in an age of superstition to get up fashionable entertainments at which spectres were to appear and horrify the public, without trading on the public ignorance by any false pretence.... [His] is the story of an honourable and well-educated showman...17

1 Heard (2006), 86

2 Heard (2006), 86

3 Castle (1995), 144

4 Heard (2006), 87

5Mannoni, trans. Crangle, quoted in Heard (2006), 90

6 Marion (1885), 174–5

7Quoted in Heard (2006), 93

8Robertson, p.6

9 Heard (2006), 94

10 Heard (2006), 94

11 Heard (2006), 106

12 Heard (2006), 111–112

13 Heard (2006) 114–115

14 Heard (2006), 116

15 Castle (1995), 144

16 Altick (1978), 218

17 Dickens (1855), 253