Leeds celebrates its film pioneer

Historic: The unveiling of Louis Le Princes reel of moving film in 1930, pictured by the Leeds Mercury.

The life of inventor Louis Le Prince is being celebrated in Leeds – the city in which he produced the first moving images. Chris Bond reports.

It’s not too fanciful to say that Leeds could have become the capital of the motion picture industry.

Back in the late 19th Century, such pioneering figures as William Friese Greene, Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers were all experimenting in producing moving images.

So, too, was Louis Le Prince. The French-born inventor was living in Leeds and in 1888 he filmed two moving picture sequences, Roundhay Garden Scene, shot at Oakwood Grange and believed to be the world’s oldest surviving film in existence, and a Leeds Bridge street scene, using his single-lens camera.

A plaque, originally on the site of Le Prince’s workshop in Leeds, which has been in the care of the Science and Media Museum in Bradford, will be reinstated at its original home of Broadcasting Place – part of Leeds Beckett University’s city campus – on November 2.

Next week’s commemoration is part of a day of events celebrating the pioneering inventor and includes the inaugural Louis Le Prince lecture, hosted by the university’s Northern Film School, and the opening of a new exhibition that revolves around his life and work.

Le Prince was born in Metz, in 1841 and later moved to Leeds to work for John Whitley Partners, a firm based in Hunslet. In 1869 he married Elizabeth Whitley and the pair founded Leeds Technical School of Art.

His work was ground-breaking but he left Leeds shortly afterwards, intending to return to France for a short period, and then giving a public demonstration of his invention in the United States.

Mysteriously, he vanished from a train on September 16, 1890, and his body and luggage were reportedly never found.

It’s an intriguing tale and today Le Prince is regarded by many as the man who filmed the world’s first moving images.

Professor Robert Shail, from Leeds Beckett University, says Le Prince holds a unique place in the story of film, albeit one that’s somewhat overlooked.

“When it comes to the question of who invented cinema and who gets the bragging rights the nearest anybody can get is him – Louis Le Prince.”

However, his subsequent disappearance meant he never got the chance to bask in his success. “Other people went on to become famous and he gets slightly written out of the story,” says Prof Shail.

“He never publicly projected his film but he invented the kit and the footage he shot in Leeds was done before the Lumiere brothers screened their work.”

Had Le Prince returned to Leeds and continued his work then the story of cinema could have taken a very different turn with Yorkshire at its heart. “At the time Leeds was a real centre for photography. There were a lot of pioneering photographers in the city and that’s why he had his workshop here. If he’d lived he would have come back and projected his footage and he’d be the inventor of cinema.”

As it is he remains an important figure. “The tiny fragments of film are a little glimpse of life in Leeds, you see these almost ghostly figures and it’s strange to think they’re almost 130 years old.”

Prof Shail points out that Le Prince’s links to Leeds are part of Yorkshire’s wider cinematic heritage.

“Yorkshire has become an important film-making location in this country and it’s nice for our students to make that connection.”

A free exhibition of images and artefacts related to Louis Le Prince and to his years in Leeds will be officially opened by Laurie Snyder, a descendant of Le Prince, at Leeds Central Library. The exhibition runs from November 2 to 16.

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