Monsieur de Philipsthal’s Phantasmagoria

Monsieur de Philipsthal’s Phantasmagoria

Contributor: Dale Townshend

Location: Lewis Walpole Library, Farmington, Connecticut

Description: This is a broadside advertisement for the Phantasmagoria, an extraordinarily popular form of entertainment that entranced and captivated British audiences when it opened at London’s Lyceum Theatre in the Strand in October 1801. A carefully curated set of ghostly conjurations, optical illusions, trompe l’oeil effects and scientific curiosities, the Phantasmagoria show was both a development of, and an improvement upon, the earlier magic-lantern shows of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and, as Simon During has argued, the first of such practices to make a significant impression upon the urban entertainment industry in the first three decades of the nineteenth century [1]. It is difficult to over-emphasise the importance of the Phantasmagoria to British culture, literary and otherwise, in the first three decades of the nineteenth century. As a primary point of confluence between British and Continental European entertainment, economics and technological advances, its very existence attests to the complexity and the richness of cross-cultural interaction and exchange in the period.

Although it is its British incarnation that is advertised here, the Phantasmagoria had its origins in Continental Europe when the inscrutable magician, showman and entertainer Paul Philidor (also spelled ‘Phylidoor’ or ‘Philidor’, also known as ‘Paul Filidort’ and probably the same person as Paul de Philipsthal) opened a ghost-conjuring spectacle in Berlin, Germany, in 1789, shuttling between Vienna, Paris and other European cities shortly thereafter. Deeply influenced by the necromantic magic-lantern shows of the German Freemason and quack conjurer Johann Georg Shröpfer, Philidor’s show would for the first time be advertised as the ‘Phantasmagorie’ in Paris in December 1792.

It was in the hands of the Liégeois stage magician and physicist, stage magician and balloonist Étienne-Gaspard Robert, however, that the Phantasmagoria as we understand it today really came into its own.  Under the influence of Philidor, Robert (later anglicised by Robert himself to Robertson) initially opened his Fantasmagorie at the Pavillon de l’Echiquier, Paris, in early 1798, purporting in the name of popular entertainment to bring the dead back to life by projecting through a magic lantern images that had been painted on glass slides onto a wall or gauze screen. With the room in which the spectacle occurred plunged into darkness, the mediating screen became invisible, and the fantastic images seemed uncannily to spring to life. Robertson enhanced the effects of his show by placing the projecting apparatus on rollers, an innovation through which he was able to increase and decrease the size of the images while lending to them a chilling sense of movement and animation. Following further refinements, Robertson later patented his magic lantern on wheels, calling it the ‘Fantascope’ in reference to its trafficking in the realm of fantaisie as well as its ability to conjure up fantômes. When a royalist member of the audience (possibly a spy) asked him during one early performance to conjure up the shade of the executed King Louis XVI, the politically savvy Robertson politely declined. Nonetheless, and precisely because it was often given over to dabbling in such topical and politically sensitive topics as images of Jean-Paul Marat, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and other heroes and victims of the French Revolution, the Fantasmagorie was summarily closed down by the French authorities.

Following a sojourn in Bordeaux, Robertson returned to Paris to re-open his Fantasmagorie in early 1799, this time, in a knowing allusion to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s notorious Gothic romance The Monk (1796), in the evocative and highly atmospheric surrounds of a ruined Capuchin convent near the Place Vendôme. As David J. Jones has shown, Robertson supplemented the ghostly spectacle that took place in the Salle de Fantasmagorie, an 84-feet long and 28-feet wide room that had previously served as the convent’s refectory, with a number of other attractions across the dilapidated site, including pre-show assemblies; references to Isis and other ancient Egyptian arcana; large paintings of danses macabres and skeletons; allusions to the mythological figure of Charon; the magic trick of the Invisible Woman who mysteriously spoke from her glass coffin; and, somewhat incongruously, a number of state-of-the-art scientific instruments that he kept in the capacious, brightly lit confines of the cabinet de physique. [2] When visitors entered the inner sanctum that was the Salle de Fantasmagorie itself, they were addressed by Robertson in a Prologue that referenced Schiller’s Der Geisterseher (1787–9), Jean Racine, Rousseau, Voltaire and other French writers in a heady mixture of Enlightenment philosophy and sensational, quasi-ghostly fiction. Indeed, as Terry Castle has shown, the Phantasmagoria was, from the outset, thoroughly split and divided in its aims, seeking as it did to exploit the thrill of the supernatural in the same gesture that it set out to dispel the belief in spectres by revealing these phantoms to be the fabricated conjurations of so many charlatan necromancers. [3] Following the extinguishing of a sole funerary lamp and an exaggerated locking of the chamber’s door, Robertson’s magic lantern would proceed to project onto a diaphanous, near-invisible screen, and amid eerie clouds of phosphorous-produced smoke, a series of terrifying images, including a rendition of Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare (1781); the Bleeding Nun from Lewis’s The Monk; the ghost of Banquo from Shakespeare’s Macbeth; a witches’ sabbath; the Witch of Endor summoning up the spirit of Samuel; the head of Medusa; a gravedigger; the bloody spectres of Rousseau, Voltaire, Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier and Maximilien Robespierre; and, by way of a conclusion, an image of a female skeleton. These optical illusions were accompanied by rudimentary sound effects, including funeral bells, the cries of a ventriloquist, the simulated sounds of thunder and wind and the eerie music that emanated from an invisible glass harmonica. Live actors in disguise, meanwhile, enhanced the atmosphere of horror, terror and wonder as they interacted with the seated members of the audience. A Fantasmagorie show lasted for approximately an hour-and-a-half; Robertson would continue to perform his shows at the ruined Capuchin convent until October 1802.

Already a pan-European phenomenon by the turn of the nineteenth century, the Phantasmagoria was first exhibited in London under the management of Paul de Philipsthal, a partner of Madame Marie Tussaud, in the downstairs room at the Lyceum Theatre in October 1801. An addition to the Grand Cabinet of Optical and Mechanical Illusions that Philipsthal had already set up there, and the more successful successor to the ‘Phantoscopia’ that Jack Bologna had brought to the same venue in c. 1796, the Phantasmagoria tapped into the same cultural tastes as those exploited by the proliferation of Gothic romances, chapbooks and dramas during the later 1790s. Indeed, the woodcut that accompanies the broadside advertisement on exhibit here gives some clue as to the show’s strongly Gothic content, for the image appears to represent that scene in Lewis’s The Monk in which the figure of the Wandering Jew, surrounded by his magic circle and other magical paraphernalia, is called upon to exorcise the ghost of the Bleeding Nun. In June 1802, moreover, the author and bookseller Henry Lemoine, himself a keen publisher of shorter Gothic fiction, published his poem ‘Phantasmagoria’ in the Gentleman’s Magazine, giving clear expression throughout to what comprised the Phantasmagoria’s characteristic fare:

When pale Lucerna combats with the gloom,
And Fancy follows phantoms from the tomb;
Behold expand the mimic scenes that show
Transparent objects from the realms below,
Whose fleeting forms, invisible by light,
Delusive on our optics steal at night;
So steals the Sorceress from her mystic cell,
Callng forth Spectres, and invoking Hell;
But when the sable curtain is withdrawn,
Fled is the vision with th’approach of morn. [4]

Committed simultaneously to the conjuration and the banishing of spectres, the London Phantasmagoria demonstrated all the doubleness of its European precursor. On the one hand, the Morning Post on Thursday 29 October 1801 declared, Mr de Philipsthal’s new show called up ‘the phantoms or apparitions of the dead or absent, in a way more completely illusive than has ever been offered to the eye on [sic] a theatre’; the visions ‘freely originate in the air,’ the report continued, ‘and unfold themselves under various forms and sizes, such as imagination alone has hitherto permitted them, occasionally assuming the figure and most perfect resemblance of the heroes, and other distinguished characters, of past the present times.’  On the other hand, however, the same advertisement claimed, this self-declared practice of ‘SPECTROLOGY’ professed to ‘expose the practices of artful impostors and pretended exorcists, and to open the eyes of those who still foster an absurd belief in ghosts, or disembodied spirits’. [5]. Regardless, the credulous and the sceptical alike flocked to marvel at Philipsthal’s show. One measure of its extraordinary success was its rapid emulation by rival theatres, and as early as 11 January 1802, the Morning Chronicle noted that the Phantasmagoria of one Monsieur St Clair had been re-engaged for a number of extra performances at London’s Royalty Theatre, Wellclose Square. [6] It was presumably such acts of emulation that led to Philipsthal being granted a Royal Letters Patent for his Phantasmagoria, a development that was reported in the Morning Chronicle on 9 February 1801 and foregrounded in the broadside advertisement. Despite this, and as Richard D. Altick has shown, Phantasmagoria shows soon became part of variety bills across theatres in London and the provinces alike. [7]

In Romantic-era Britain, the phantasmagoria was rapidly taken up by the culture of caricature and visual political satire, not least in James Gillray’s A Phantasmagoria:— Scene— Conjuring-up an Armed Skeleton (5 January 1803), a handcoloured aquatint in which Henry Addington, Lord Hawkesbury and Charles James Fox are presented as conjuring up a vision of Britannia as a skeleton, and through which Gillray criticises the Peace of Amiens (1802) as compromising or sacrificing Britain’s interests so as to placate the French enemy [link:]. Other political uses of the Phantasmagoria from the period include the printmaker Charles Williams’s The Flushing Phantasmagoria; or, Kings Conjurors Amusing John Bull (September 1809) [Link:] and Thomas Rowlandson’s A New French Phantasmagoria (1803) [link:]. In these and other such examples, the Phantasmagoria serves as a powerful metaphor for staged deception on a large, even national scale, perhaps an historical equivalent to what we would be inclined to call ‘political gaslighting’ today.  A visual technology designed for the conjuring of ghosts though it remained, the Phantasmagoria also frequently served Romantic-era culture as a synecdoche for the literary Gothic mode, another thoroughly cosmopolitan cultural form that was constituted through, and nurtured by, the interaction between British, German and French literary traditions. As the Maquis de Sade would put it in ‘An Essay on Novels’ from The Crimes of Love (1800), the novels of Radcliffe and Lewis derived their merit and power through their reliance upon ‘witchcraft and phantasmagoria’. [8]   Thus we witness the existence of cosmopolitan Gothic texts such as Fantasmagoriana (1812), Jean-Baptiste Benoît Eyriès’s compilation and translation into French of a selection of German Gothic tales and that influential collection of stories that, in the Summer of 1816, would come to inspire the writing of two of the most well-known Gothic fictions in the English tradition: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818; 1831) and John Polidori’s ‘The Vampyre’ (1819). Byron made descriptive use of the Phantasmagoria in his satirical The Vision of Judgment (1822), Mary Shelley referenced it in The Last Man (1826) and Thomas Carlyle invoked it repeatedly in The French Revolution: A History (1837). Yet, since it ultimately took its place alongside such other attractions as Leicester Square’s Panorama and the Eidophusikon, the Phantasmagoria could also be used by other members of the Romantic literati to condemn the perceived vulgarity of the Gothic mode. Thus, having confused it with the camera obscura, that other eighteenth-century device of visual projection with which is was frequently associated, Samuel Taylor Coleridge could disparagingly write in a footnote to Chapter III of Biographia Literaria (1817) that the devotees of the circulating libraries did not read modern romance so much indulge in ‘a sort of beggarly day-dreaming’ during which ‘the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility’; the material and imagery of the daydream, he went on, was ‘supplied ab extra [from without] by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore [temporarily] fixes, reflects and transmits the moving phantasms of one man’s delirium, so as to people the barrenness of an hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose’. [9] Technology had been internalised, and the mind of the reader had, itself, become a Phantasmagoria show. Though it ultimately explained away its ghosts as the stuff of theatrical illusion, the Phantasmagoria, as Castle has pointed out, came to lend itself as an enduring metaphor for the reveries, the dreams, the disturbances and the wild visions of the modern subject’s psychic life.

Date: Probably early 1802

Creator: unknown

Subject: Romantic popular entertainment; necromancy; ghost-seeing; magic; Romantic visual culture

Media rights: Courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Object type: Romantic ephemera; broadside advertisement; woodcut

Format: Image

 Language: English

Publisher: Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University

Digital collection record: Lewis Walpole Library Digital Collection:

Catalogue number: Folio 74 OL1 v. 2


  1. Simon During, Modern Enchantments: The Cultural Power of Secular Magic (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 101–2.
  2. David D. Jones, Gothic Machine: Textualities, Pre-cinematic Media and Film in Popular Visual Culture, 1670–1910 (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2011), pp. 62–9.
  3. Terry Castle, ‘Phantasmagoria: Spectral Technology and the Metaphorics of Modern Reverie’, Critical Inquiry, vol. 15, no. 1 (Autumn 1988), 26–61.
  4. Henry Lemoine, ‘Phantasmagoria’, The Gentleman’s Magazine; And Historical Chronicle, vol. LXXII, part 1 (June 1802), no pag.
  5. Morning Post, Thursday October 29 1801, issue 10306.
  6. Morning Chronicle, 11 January 1802, issue 10185.
  7. Richard D. Altick, The Shows of London (Cambridge, MA and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978), pp. 217–220.
  8. Marquis de Sade, The Crimes of Love, ed. and trans. David Coward (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 13.
  9. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Major Works, Including Biographia Literaria, ed. and intro. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 182.