How to make a thaumatrope (what’s a thaumatrope and why would you want to make one?) and the illusion of movement in the prehistoric and historic. A guest feature by Littlestone.
Dirk Huds explains that, “A thaumatrope is a simple manual animation device. A piece of card is attached to pieces of string that, when manipulated, cause the card to rapidly flip over. Illustrations on each side of the card appear to merge into a single image as the thaumatrope is spun.” For example the dog below seems to be chasing the birds when the thaumatrope is spun.
The 1825 thaumatrope above is by John Ayrton Paris, which was shown in the Exhibit of Optical Toys (from the collection of Laura Hayes and John Howard Wileman) at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in 1996. “The invention of the thaumatrope, whose name means “turning marvel” or “wonder turner,” has often been credited to the astronomer Sir John Herschel. However, it was a well-known London physicist, Dr. John A. Paris, who made this toy popular. Thaumatropes were the first of many optical toys, simple devices that continued to provide animated entertainment until the development of modern cinema.” More examples of thaumatropes (and other optical toys) can be found on the wonderful The Richard Balzer Collection website here.
Auroch roundel found in the Mas d’Azil cave, southern France
Musée d’Archéologie nationale et Domaine national de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Paris
What’s really interesting is that there seems to be a thaumatrope in the Ice Age art exhibition now showing at the British Museum. The thaumatrope shows an auroch calf on one side and an auroch cow on the other so, when spun, the calf morphs into a cow (or vice versa). It’s astonishing that people 13,000-14,000 years ago had such and appreciation of movement and were able to depict it so ingeniously, not only in the thaumatrope (if that really is what it is) but also much earlier in the poise of animals, the representation of multiple legs, heads and whole body forms in their cave paintings and engravings. Movement was obviously very important to these early painters but was it important because it helped them understand how an animal ran or was it important as an appreciation of the beauty of an animal in motion (or both, or more).
The Horse Panel, Chauvet Cave, southern France
Until relatively recently (not until Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase of 1912) we seemed to have lost the ability to depict movement in our paintings – was that a result of placing too much emphasis on our ‘still life’ and portraiture paintings? Our attempt to freeze a thing or a person in the present rather than depicting them forever moving forward as our ancient painter ancestors were so adept at doing.
Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968)
Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Museum of Art
I say we seemed to have lost the ability to depict movement in our paintings until Duchamp, but perhaps not that recently; there is this example from the early 13th century showing a Taoist hermit at the court of a Chinese emperor (original in colour) lowering his eyes in deference. The effect of movement here, and the emotion that it conjures up is stunning, and perhaps not so far removed in intent from thaumatropes of 13,000-14,000 years ago and cave paintings from even earlier times.
A Taoist hermit from a mural in a 13th century Chinese Taoist temple
See also The Heritage Trust’s earlier feature on the World’s oldest animation? here.