William Norman Lascelles Davidson

British experimenter in colour cinematography

Captain William Norman Lascelles Davidson, of the 4th Battalion The Kings (Liverpool) Regiment is a little-known experimenter in colour cinematography from the early years of cinema. Between 1898 and 1906 he spent some £3,000 in the quest for a workable motion picture system using natural colours. Although his work was ultimately unsuccessful, it played its part in influencing the development of Kinemacolor, the world’s first successful natural colour motion picture system, invented by Davidson’s neighbour in the English south coast town of Southwick, near Brighton, G.A. Smith. In 1898 Davidson patented a triple-lens camera, with three filters in the primary colours behind each of the lenses. It led to no practical working model, but Davidson followed up with a three-colour still photography system in 1899 (the year Frederick Marshall Lee and Edward Turner patented a three-colour motion picture system), then in May 1901 he purchased a Kammatograph from Leo Kamm. The Kammatograph recorded motion picture images as a series of tiny photographs in a spiral on a glass disc. Davidson used it in his colour experiments with his Southwick neighbour Dr Benjamin Jumeaux, and in these he anticipated Smith’s discovery that using just red and green filters would produce an acceptable, and more easily obtained, picture in natural colours. Davidson and Jumeaux patented a two-colour camera and film projection system in 1903, which employed prisms, but the results were reported to be highly unnatural at exhibitions given in Paris and Brighton in 1904. Smith processed these films, and had become Davidson’s near neighbour in Southwick.

In 1905, William Friese Greene, himself an unsuccessful experimenter in colour cinematography, was employed by Davidson for a period, having just emerged from a short period in prison for borrowing money while an undischarged bankrupt. Davidson and Friese-Greene demonstrated a two-colour system at the Royal Institution and at the Photographic Convention of Great Britain in Southampton in 1906. The British Journal of Photography reported, ‘the real reds are ignored, and while this may be useful for pure landscape work, it can never be a true scientific record of colour by the aid of cinematography’. With the patenting of G.A. Smith’s practical two-colour system in November 1906, which three years later would be named Kinemacolor, Davidson abandoned his colour cinematography work. Davidson is an intriguing figure in the little-known and highly competitive search for colour cinematography that preceded Kinemacolor, and his influence on Smith needs to be analysed further. He is also an overlooked member of the remarkable ‘Brighton school’ of motion picture pioneers who worked together, to one degree or another, in the Brighton area in the 1890s and 1900s.

Luke McKernan