Phantasmagoria and Paul de Philipstal

Illustration of a performance by Phylidor, from a 1791 handbill. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Paul de Philipstal (sometimes spelled Phillipstal, Philipsthal, or Phillipsthall) was actually named Paul Philidor based on a booklet from 1805 that mentions Philidor’s alias as “Philipsthal.” Philidor (also spelled Phylidor or Phyllidor) began to present a prototype phantasmagoria show in Berlin in early 1789. Phantasmagoria shows were a dream-like spectral performed in darkness. Philidor’s shows also involved seances and raising the dead. However, near the end of March 1789, after having conducted numerous shows, he was accused of being a fraud, prohibited from performing his shows again, and ordered to leave Berlin.

Madame Tussaud at age 42. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Philidor’s roadshow then traveled to Leipzig, Dresden, Vienna, Regensburg, and München before finally ending up in Paris. In Paris, Philidor advertised one of his first shows in December of 1792 as a “phantasmagorie” show, which he later changed to “phantasmagoria.” A theatre dictionary of 1885 claimed ‘Filidort’ performed at the Hotel Chartres on rue Richelieu twice a day, the first show at 5:30pm and a second one ending precisely at 9pm.

Although Philidor had gotten in trouble in Berlin for raising the dead, he was reported to have once said, “I pretend to be neither priest nor magician; I have no wish to deceive you; but I know how to astonish you.”[1] In addition, at some point Philidor began using the name Philipstal, and he met and befriended Madame Tussaud’s mentor Philippe Mathé Curtius. Despite Philipstal developing the idea of phantasmagoria, Étienee-Gaspard Robert is the person credited with having perfected the techniques.

Illustration of hidden magic lantern projection on smoke in Guyot’s Nouvelles récréations physiques et mathématiques (1770). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Robert, who went by his stage name Robertson, attended one of Philipstal’s performances in 1793. He realized the potential of Philipstal’s idea and created his own shows calling them “fantasmagorie.” Fantasmagorie was a combination of optics, magic, and conjuring, accompanied by sounds and eerie lighting effects. There was also a magic lantern used. It consisted of a candle and concave mirror that created a reflection that was magnified so that “images could be made to appear like fantastic luminous shapes, floating inexplicably in the air.”[2]

Gothic was also popular and Robertson’s Gothic shows enthralled the public. They plunged audience members into utter darkness, where for an hour and half, they were completely mesmerized. One newspaper account of a fantasmagorie extravaganza in 1801, that was not necessarily a show produced by Robertson, described the bizarre types of things that audiences might see and experience.

“This spectacle … is lighted up with flashes of lightning: the decorations are tombs, caverns, and infernal dungeons. The actors are spectres, ghosts, phantoms, goblins, and banchees, and the walking gentlemen hyaenas, tygers, and devils of all colours.”[3]

Philipstal likewise began to produce fantasmagorie or phantasmagoria shows and ended up in England around 1801. Gothic was all the rage there too, and his phantasmagoria shows were well received. A poster advertising Philipstal’s show at the Lyceum on the Strand, promised both optical illusions and mechanical pieces of art. Optical illusions included ghosts, disembodied spirits, and phantoms or apparitions of the dead. Some of the mechanical pieces advertised included rope dancers, a peacock, and a ‘beautiful cossack’ in a small box that danced after the manner of Cossacks.

Philipstal also promised patrons that he would provide entertainment that had never been offered or seen anywhere before. He claimed:

“This Spectrology, which professes 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, will, it is presumed, afford also to the spectator an interesting and pleasing Entertainment.”[4]

Le Bon Genre: Le Vieux Style. Courtesy of British Museum.

During a break, Philipstal returned to France, and while in France, he talked to Madame Tussaud about joining him. He apparently realized that her wax displays would be a superb addition to his own shows, and likely suggested to her that her wax exhibitions could not fail. At any rate, Madame Tussaud liked his suggestion, agreed, and became his junior partner on the road, but, unfortunately, their partnership did not last long. Their fallout occurred partly because of the terms: “She was to pay her own transport costs and expenses, and he would take half of her gross earnings.”[5]

After Madame Tussaud and Philipstal’s partnership broke up, Philipstal continued to promote his show described as a “soul-appalling spectacle.” The following is a description of what spectators could expect at to see at one Philipstal’s shows:

“The spectatory was a room were no lights but that of a dismal oil-lamp hanging in the centre was admitted. On the assembling of the audience, this lamp was drawn up into a chimney, and a pitch gloom overspread the place. Presently the soft and mournal notes of sepulchral music was heard, and a curtain rose displaying a cavern, on the frowning walls of which were depicted the forms of skeletons and spectral figures. The music ceased; the rumbling of thunder was heard in the distance. Gradually it became louder, until at length vivid flashes of lightning, accompanied with peals apparently of the deep-toned organ of the skies, gave all the impressions of a tremendous storm. The thunder and lightning continued at their height, when suddenly a small cloud of light appeared in the air; it gradually increased in size, until at length it stood revealed a ghastly spectre, around whom the lightning gleamed in a fearful reality. Its eyes moved agonizedly from side to side, or now turned up in the sunken eye-socket, the image of unutterable despair. Away, back to the dim abyss from whence it came, it was seen swiftly to retire, and finally vanished in a little cloud, the storm rolling away at the same time. Then came other phantasms, some of which rushed up with apparently amazing rapidity, approaching the spectators, and again as rapidly receding — to return clothed with flesh and blood, or in the form of some well-known public personages! After a display of a number of similar apparitions, the curtain fell, and the lamp was uncovered; the spectators departing with expressions of great astonishment at what had been seen.”[6]

Beginning portion of Philipstal’s will. Author’s Collection.

Philipstal was granted a patent in Britain for his Phantasmagoria described as an “optical apparatus” on January 27, 1802. He had also married a woman named Mary and had a family. On 24 January 1827, Philipstal signed a will. He died two years later on 7 March 1829. A Leeds newspaper reported his death with a short paragraph:

“This gentleman who is so well known to the public as the talented and ingenious inventor and proprietor of the Mechanical and Optical Museum, which he has exhibited, at the theatre, in this town, to gratified although not very numerous audiences, for the last six weeks, died at his lodgings, in Woodhouse-lane on Saturday. Mr. Philipsthal complained of a slight indisposition on Friday evening, became worse during the night, and sent for medical assistance on Saturday morning. In the afternoon he was a corpse. He intended to have left Leeds for Wakefield, on Saturday, and was engaged to the public exhibit his museum in that town, on Monday last. He has left a widow and three children unprovided for, the youngest of whom is about five years of age, and the oldest fourteen.”[7]

Phantasmagoria would eventually become outmoded by the 1840s. However, projection was still used in different realms. A few occasional mentions of phantasmagoria happened in the late 1800s. For instance, a book titled Phantasmagoria consisting of seven cantos that was written by Lewis Carroll was published in London in 1869. There was also an English poet named John Evelyn Barlas who also wrote several phantasmagoria shows during the late 1880s that were somewhat popular.


  • [1] Schwartz, Vanessa R. and Jeannene M. Przyblyski, The Nineteenth-century Visual Culture Reader (New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 102.
  • [2] Castle, Terry, The Female Thermometer: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny: Eighteenth-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1995), p. 146.
  • [3] Morning Post, “Madame Bonaparte,” August 18, 1801, p. 2.
  • [4] The Morning Chronicle, “Novel Exhibition – Lyceum, Strand. Phantasmagoria,” October 30, 1801, p. 1.
  • [5] Berridge, Kate. Madame Tussaud: A Life in Wax. Harper Collins, 2008.  p. 176.
  • [6] The Living Age, Volume 23, 1849, p. 319.
  • [7] Leeds Intelligencer, “Local Intelligence,” 12 March 1829, p. 3.

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