Celebrating the Centenary of John & William Barnes – new film of Walter Sickert

[‘With the Gypsies in Kent’, 1938 – the life of a Roma family]

Sunday the 28th of June 2020 marks the centenary of the birth of the twin brothers – John and William Barnes.

Historians, collectors and film-makers, they were leading authorities on pre-cinema and early cinema and the co-founders of the Barnes Museum of Cinematography, which opened in St Ives, Cornwall, in 1963. Their collection filled two whole floors of a house in Fore Street and, as one of the first film museums in the world, it became a focal point for scholars worldwide.

They were born in London and developed an early passion for film. In the 1930s, they made films together of Kent and Cornwall, and while at Canford School in Dorset, they ran its cinema. In 1939, they studied film technique and design at the studio of Edward Carrick, in Soho Square, London, and bought several Victorian optical toys from a bookshop in Cecil Court, off Charing Cross Road. This was the start of their collection and of their ambition for it to represent the history of moving pictures from the 17th to the early 20th centuries, including magic lanterns, shadow play, panoramas, dioramas, silhouettes, peepshows and the early forms of cinema.

After wartime service in the Royal Navy, the brothers moved to St Ives and resumed their collecting. Based in a studio that had been used by the painter James McNeill Whistler, the twins specialised in the 1950s in dealing in second-hand books related to the moving image. They organised the first exhibition based on their collection in St Ives in 1951, and in 1956 objects were loaned to an Observer exhibition, Sixty Years of Cinema in Trafalgar Square.

John devoted over twenty-five years to the production of his five-volume opus The Beginnings of the Cinema in England, 1894-1901, a comprehensive investigation that charts the medium’s technological, cultural, economic and geographical development. The Barnes collection provided it with a significant amount of primary material and Bill served as its co-producer given his understanding of the subject and the surviving documentation.

The Barnes brothers were always closely associated with Screen Archive South East since it was established by the University in 1992. In 1996 the University’s exhibitionThe Arrival of Cinema was only made possible because of their support and in the next year SASE arranged for Hove Museum & Art Gallery to acquire that part of the Barnes collection that represented early film-making in the South East. In 1999, the Barnes brothers deposited most of their film collection with SASE where it has now been preserved and digitised. Made in the 1930s, they are engaging records of rural scenes and Romany life in East Kent.

John passed away in 2008 and in 2019, after Bill’s death at the age of 99, a number of additional Barnes’ films were uncovered – ones that had been thought to be either missing or lost. We are very pleased that they have now joined the SASE collection. They include their studies of Cornwall and a remarkable scene of Walter Sickert at a tea party in a Thanet garden in West Kent.

Sickert was a key figure in the English avant-garde art in the early 20th Century and he lived with his wife Thérèse Lessore in Broadstairs from 1934 to 1938. John and Bill’s mother, Garlick Barnes, was a still-life painter and she was one of Sickert’s pupils.

In 1997 John and Bill were awarded the Jean Mitry prize by the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy for their distinguished contribution to the study of silent cinema and in 2006 they received honorary doctorates from the University of Stirling.

Click HERE to view the Barnes film collection

And view the film of Sickert HERE

Here and There [Afternoon Tea with Sickert], c.1937