"You must be a very happy man"
Laurence Olivier to Robert Donat in The Magic Box, a 1951 film about William Friese-Greene.
It is easy to cast William Friese-Greene as the archetypal tortured genius; a man whose passion to invent first ruined him then sent him to the edge of madness and finally killed him. Pit him against a dull witted public on the one hand and a ruthless, monomaniacal tyrant in Thomas Edison and the tragedy is complete. A gerbil would have a better chance extracting itself from a python’s coils than Friese-Greene had escaping his fate. Or so it seems. There are other sides to the story of the man some people (British, usually) insist invented motion pictures. One is the utter lack of any self-discipline. References to the hundreds of patents he took out for photographic devices and machines might suggest a fervid imagination but equally they point to an unfettered mind, incapable of seeing work through to its proper conclusion, uninterested in the dry business of marketing and especially so detached from any sense of public opinion that he could never understand why no one was particularly interested in his inventions.
Actually they were; any blame for a lack of enthusiasm regarding Friese-Greene’s various patents ought to be laid at his feet first. Take for example the claims that he sent a letter to Edison outlining his invention for a motion picture camera, that Edison failed to respond, or rather, his response was to unveil his kinetoscope a couple of years later. Edison never acknowledged receiving the letter, which some see as a very likely explanation although it probably was just that. How many letters a week would Edison have received from inventors around the world convinced they, with the great man’s assistance, would make a fortune? It is easy to say this now, but since Friese-Greene’s invention had been reported on in the Scientific American, a smarter move might have been to work through an intermediary.
As a photographer, Friese-Greene was successful enough to open a studio first in Bath, then Bristol, the Brighton and two in London, although reminiscences left by his business partner, Arthur Esme Collings, and receptionist, Winifred Tagg, suggest he had problems even then. She describes a decrepit looking studio being something of an embarrassment for the society ladies who came to have their portrait taken, Friese-Greene frequently vanishing for the day without giving reason and bills went unpaid. He was one of the first in London to install electric lighting in his studio but when he couldn’t pay the bill the London Electric Light Company began court proceedings. Friese-Greene’s response was to counter sue, which was reckless – he was bound to lose – but also an omen. Most of his efforts at suing others, inevitably over copyright, would fail. Reports of his case against Charles Urban, who tried to block Friese-Greene’s Biocolour film process just before the First World War suggest it was easy for Urban’s lawyers to depict Friese-Greene as a shambling, misguided crank. (He later won some of his credibility back in an appeal.)
Soon after Wilhelm Roentgen discovered x-rays in 1895 Friese-Greene was running a show at a London music hall x-raying various body parts of his audience. His quickness at seeing the potential in the latest innovations is admirable, the way he used them maybe not so. This story suggests that by the 1890s money, or more precisely, the fast buck, was the motive force in his work. With so many failures behind him, each attempt became more urgent, short lived and failed to give him any stability. There is a suspicion about Friese-Greene that more than anything he demanded recognition as a genius. Failure only pushed him further. While he was demonstrating x-rays to his audience, over in Vienna Freud was working on theories that in his terms would have described Friese-Greene’s problem as an aggressive battle between the ego and the id, with the superego, that part of his consciousness that might have restored some balance, being pushed to one side. In the end he got what he wanted - his headstone in Highgate Cemetery declares him the inventor of ‘kinematography’ - but his eccentricities overshadow his achievements. He is a case study in how not to go about things.
Portraits by William Friese-Greene aren’t that common although as artifacts these four CDVs are interesting only if you know something about their creator. You could otherwise be forgiven for assuming they are the work of an average portrait photographer. It’s the backs that tell us more. They come from that point when he was on top of his game, before everything started to unravel.
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