Hand Shadows: Shakespeare, Mrs Gamp, and the ‘Three-Eared Squirrel’!

Posted By: Beth Hall

Posted: April 20, 2012

Is there a more innocent pleasure than making hand shadows? During my childhood I whiled away many a happy hour making shadows on my bedroom wall. Dogs, birds and butterflies were of course a staple and my three-eared squirrel was the stuff of legend (well, at least in my household…). Good times!

A second series of hand shadows to be thrown upon the wall

The history of using shadows to entertain and delight is a long one. Hand shadows were a particularly popular form of entertainment in the 19th century, with many books devoted to the art of creating them. In our forthcoming project Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema we include a number of such books.

A second series of hand shadows to be thrown upon the wall

Delightfully, books such as A second series of hand shadows to be thrown upon the wall: consisting of novel and amusing figures formed by the hand by Henry Bursill (1860) contain a highly diverse set of figures, from Wellington and Shakespeare, to Fagan and Mrs Gamp, to Punch and Mike (any information about Mike gratefully received). In the preface Bursill himself says that “Mrs. Gamp will feel herself no less honoured and surprised, to find herself in company with his Grace, the hero of Waterloo, in the present motley group; whilst Mr. Punch will, I fear, think there has been something underhanded, and will doubtless complain that he was not palmed off before, along with his Dog Toby” (Toby appeared separately in Bursill’s earlier book on hand shadows).

In addition to enjoying the eclectic mix of people and animals in this book what amuses me is how difficult they look to recreate! See Mrs Gamp for example:

A second series of hand shadows to be thrown upon the wall

Having rekindled my love of making hand shadows I decided to try out a few. As suspected, they’re pretty tricky. To save my reputation I haven’t included my attempts here, you’ll have to make do with this rooster instead:Rooster

This book on hand shadows is one of many interesting documents included in our forthcoming project Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema. This project provides thorough coverage of Victorian and Edwardian visual entertainments, early optics, magic lantern shows, panoramas, dioramas, early photography, and early motion pictures.

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Beth Hall

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew Group, an academic publisher of digital primary source collections in the arts and humanities. Since joining Adam Matthew in 2007, I have worked on some fascinating projects including 'India, Raj and Empire', 'Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice', 'The First World War: Personal Experiences' and 'China: Culture and Society'. My most recent work has found me peering into peep eggs, kaleidoscopes and shadow theatres at the Bill Douglas Centre for our forthcoming digital resource Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema. This exciting new resource explores the captivating world of Victorian and Edwardian visual entertainments, early optics, magic lantern shows, panoramas, dioramas, early photography, and early motion pictures.

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