Muybridge and Will Day

Brochure announcing Will Day's book

I recently downloaded Muybridge’s book Animals in Motion – available here:

Click to access 019.pdf

and The Human Figure in Motion, here:

Click to access 053.pdf

Dr. Stillman’s magnificent (though flawed) The Horse in Motion is also available, here:

Click to access 156.pdf

These copies all belonged to Will Day.

The Chapter details shown here are from the two-volume book 25,000 Years to Trap a Shadow, by Wilfred E. L. Day. The picture of the book is an artist’s impression – it was never published.

Will Day (1873-1936), for those who haven’t come across him, was involved in the early days of cinema as a travelling showman, became a major figure in the British cinema equipment industry – and tried his hand much less successfully in production. Fascinated , to the level of obsession necessary for a dedicated collector without substantial financial resources, he accumulated a large collection of material relating to pre-cinema and the early days of the film industry. In the 1920s this was shown in a back room of his shop in London’s Lisle Street. He was the foremost champion of the claims of William Friese Greene to be acknowledged as the ‘inventor’ of cinema.

Zoöpraxiscope disc displayed in London's Science Museum in the 1930s

Day went into the radio business in the 20s, and was a key player in the very early days of television, in partnership with John Logie Baird, and was at one time co-patentee of television. All the time his interest in the origins of cinematography continued, his collection eventually being displayed in a special gallery in the Science Museum, London. The prestige enabled Day to add many items. The collection included several Muybridge publications.

In 1931, Day gave a speech at the unveiling of the memorial tablet in Kingston Museum, and around that time donated a zoetrope to the museum, with a copy of an original picture strip of a silhouette sequence of a Muybridge galloping horse.

Zoetrope, Kingston Museum Collection

He was keen that the motion aspects of Muybridge’s work should be seen by visitors, and suggested that the zoetrope could be worked by a handle. It was never installed. I believe that a phenkistiscope moving image disc (mid 19th-century) in the Kingston Collection was also provided by Will Day.

Day’s collection at one time included a lens that had purportedly been used by Muybridge – I’m currently researching that particular item.

His book was compiled during the same period, but Day was not a professional writer and it never did quite shape up into a publishable script. He tried to sell his collection in the mid 30s, and a catalogue was compiled and printed, but the sale didn’t happen. Day had sold out his television patent after becoming exasperated by Baird and perhaps realizing that it would not be a paying business for many years. He helped at the Forty Years of Cinema celebrations at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London in the spring of 1936, but by then he was tired and ill. He died just weeks later. In the fifties his sons offered to sell his collection to the nation, but the necessary funding was not made available. It was purchased by the French Government, and now forms an important part of the French national collections on early and pre-cinema.

The manuscript and typescripts of the book (in several drafts) are in the Bibliotheque du film (BiFi) in Paris and accessible to researchers. I have not read the Muybridge chapter.

Zoopraxicope disc, Cinématheque française

‘Le mouvement continué’ catalogue number 1201. Inv. AP-95-1731 (W. Day) Glass disc painted with 11 phases of a horse and rider in motion. Accompanied  by a metal shutter disc, with 12 slots.

A 16-inch Zoopraxiscope disc, once displayed in the Will Day section of the Science Museum, went to France with his collection, and is now on display in the Cinema Museum in Paris. It is not known how this came to be released from the Kingston Collection. The disc, showing a cantering horse, is seen in Day’s catalogue (there were two editions). The illustration here is from a book by Laurent Mannoni.

I have bumped into the ‘ghost’ of Will Day on many occasions over the years – as I posed in front of that same 1931 memorial tablet when the Muybridge exhibition opened at MOMI London in 1992; researched cinema pioneers in his documents at BiFi; Viewed David Robinson’s exhibition of Day’s life and work at the Pordenone silent film festival some years ago; and examined his lecture slides (about the development of cinematography) at the Cinémathèque archives in Paris. I was even roped in to project a film on a Lumière Cinématographe at London’s Polytechnic – now Westminster University – (as Day had tried to do half a century earlier) for the Centenary of Cinema celebrations in 1996. Also in 1996 I was commissioned to provide two small motorised zoetropes for the new Muybridge Gallery at Kingston Museum – sixty years after Day’s attempt to arrange a working zoetrope. (They have been creaking around in the cabinet to this day, and are due to be removed for a replacement exhibit layout next month.)

Will Day’s achievements have always been prominently acknowledged by those who now hold his collections of equipment, books, lantern slides, films, and documents – and, notwithstanding his shortcomings as a historian, his efforts will always be remembered by media researchers. As Stephen Bottomore has written, “In an age before cinematheques and film museums existed he saw the importance of this work, and today’s film historians have much to thank him for.”


Laurent Mannoni, Le Mouvement continué. Catalogue illustré de la collection des appareils de la Cinémathèque française
This catalogue describes (accurately) and illustrates all of the items of equipment (including phenakistiscope discs, etc) from the Will Day Collection.

Laurent Mannoni, ‘”Whither wilt thou lead me?”: en suivant l’ombre de Will Day’, Cinémathèque, no. 6 (Autumn 1994)

Will Day, ‘The joys of operating twenty years ago’, Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly, 1 March 1917

Will Day, ‘The Portrayal of Movement. History of Cinematography. From Camera Obscura to the Living picture’. The Times, 19 March 1929.

Will Day, 25,000 Years to Trap a Shadow. The Birth and Biographical History of Moving Pictures (unpublished)

Michelle Aubert, Laurent Mannoni and David Robinson (eds.), ‘The Will Day Historical Collection of Cinematograph & Moving Picture Equipment’, special issue of the journal 1895, October 1997
This publication includes essays on the books, films, and other items in the Will Day Collection, researched in recent years by French scholars.

Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema website:

Posted here by Stephen Herbert

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