Royal Visit of the Cardiff Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition (lost footage of British Royal Family members; 1896)
On 27th June 1896, the Prince and Princess of Wales, along with their daughters Princesses Maud and Victoria, visited the Cardiff Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition held in Cathays Park. This royal visit was recorded by film pioneer Birt Acres, marking the first instance of British Royal Family members being filmed, as well as becoming one of the earliest British news films and recordings to be set in Cardiff. It also became one of 21 films showcased at the inaugural Royal Command Film Performance.
The Cardiff Industrial and Fine Art Exhibition was the third of its kind to be held in the Welsh city. Previously, it had hosted smaller exhibitions in 1870 and 1881 at the Drill Hall. Initial plans were to establish the next exhibition in either 1894 or 1895, harnessing elements from the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. However, budget and time constraints necessitated a delay until 1896, with construction at Cathays Park beginning in early-1895. Under architect Edwin Seward, 130 men tirelessly contributed to the construction of diverse attractions, including, but not limited to, the then-unique Dorlands Electric Railway, a specialist canal used for water-related showcases including boats and water cycles, and exhibits for exotic animals like lions and tigers. Considering the city's tight connection to the coal and iron industries, it is perhaps of no surprise a focus was also placed on engineering and mining exhibits.
On 2nd May 1896, Lord Winsor officially opened the exhibition, to be held for six months. Overall, the exhibition proved popular, though not necessarily generating a great financial boost for the city. Ending in November 1896, The History and Architecture of Cardiff claims just under 900,000 attended, whereas over sources state the attractions enticed over a million to visit. It provided an intriguing glimpse into the future of electricity and housing in particular, with the exhibition building greeting curious visitors with two oriental dome towers and a "horseshoe" leading into structures such as the Grand Concert Hall. Partway during the exhibition's lifespan, tragedy struck on 21st July 1896 when a hot air balloon stunt by 14-year-old "Mademoiselle Albertina" (Louisa Maud Evans) went disastrously wrong, with her body found washed ashore days later.
Royal Visit and Birt Acres' Film
Queen Victoria reportedly supported the exhibition. However, the only Royal Family figures confirmed to have attended the event during its run were the Queen's son Edward, the then-Prince of Wales, who would later become the future King Edward VII. Also attending were his wife Alexandra, Princess of Wales, and two of their daughters, Princesses Maud and Victoria. On 27th June, the four made their visit, entering the exhibition hall. The visit occurred during the pioneering stages of British filmmaking, with Birt Acres among the first to record and publicly release their publications. Acres saw the future of filmmaking to reflect photographic and educational needs, and so specialised in actuality works like Yarmouth Fishing Boats Leaving Harbour. He also began seeking royal backing by recording two news events in 1895 featuring Wilhelm II, the then-German Emperor and grandson of Queen Victoria.
Furthering into his plans, Acres aimed to film the upcoming royal visit of the Cardiff Exhibition. Considering the historical implications a recording would bring, Acres opted to utilise a new 70mm camera rather than rely on traditional 35mm film. He also faced the challenge of capturing clear footage of the royal guests, while conforming to a request to not have himself appear in the film. To achieve both aims, Acres drilled a hole within the canvas of one of the exhibition building's walls, a move which allegedly was not necessarily supported by the royals present. The hole was not large enough for the camera's viewfinder to fit through, meaning Acres could not witness what he was recording. Thus, he relied on a royal official to inform him when the Prince of Wales et al were present, and began shooting virtually blind. Based on various reports, the footage he acquired was more than sufficient. According to the Cardiff Western Mail, the film began with the road up to the Exhibition being guarded by troops, with both Lord and Lady Winsor both briefly appearing on-screen in their respective robes. After the Royal carriage reaches it destination, the four royal figures emerge and head towards the exhibition hall. One Cardiff Western Mail writer runs across the road just as the film abruptly ends.
Therefore, Acres planned to publicly release the film later that year. However, the Prince of Wales requested that he himself see the footage before allowing its public showcase, Acres receiving help for this from Cecil Hepworth. This culminated in a screening of the film plus 20 other works by Acres at the Marlborough House on 21st July 1896, with around 40 royal guests present. The exhibition marked the inaugural Royal Command Film Performance, which has since emerged as an annual event. While the royal guests were intrigued by the first twenty films, universal acclaim occurred upon the Cardiff Exhibition recording's screening, with the guests thrilled by seeing the clear portrayals of the four Royal Family members, which previously had never occurred before. It quickly prompted requests to repeat the footage, which was naturally granted. According to The Photographic News, the film's full title was H.R.H. The Prince of Wales accompanied by T.R.H. The Princess of Wales, Princess Victoria, and Princess Maud, arriving at the Cardiff Exhibition, June 27th, 1896.
The only scorn the work generated, as reported by various publications, was that a scene of the Prince of Wales supposedly scratching his head was kept in the film. This caused him to be labelled as a "photographic fiend", forcing him to respond that the Prince was simply flicking a fly away. This apparently placated most Victorian royalists, and was seemingly not of a serious concern to the Prince of Wales as he personally expressed gratitude to Acres post-screening. Acres, boosted by the growing royal patronage, then requested that he also film Princess Maud's wedding to Prince Carl of Denmark, which commenced a day after the first Royal Command Film Performance. This too ended up being approved on behalf of the Prince of Wales, further growing Acres' reputation as a filmmaker. Alas, he seldom recorded more 70mm films, as they simply proved too expensive for the era. According to some sources, the Cardiff Exhibition recording was the first British news film, the first featuring British Royal Family members, the first harnessing a 70mm film format, and the first set in Cardiff.
Despite Acres' film being historically significant, it has since been declared as a lost work with no footage or images having been recovered. Reports of the era help to document the film's production and showcase at the Royal Command Film Performance, with the Cardiff Western Mail report cited as the best source when assessing potential surviving copies of the recording.
British Royal Family Media
- Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (partially found television coverage of royal coronation; 1937)
- King George VI (lost Wembley Speech recording from British monarch; 1925)
- Royal Family (found British documentary film; 1969)
- Wedding of Princess Maud and Prince Carl (partially found footage of royal wedding; 1896)
Other Birt Acres Films
- Bryant & May Matches (lost "first commercial ever made"; 1896)
- The Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race (lost footage of rowing race; 1895)
- Yarmouth Fishing Boats Leaving Harbour (partially found early British actuality films; 1896-1897)
- The History and Architecture of Cardiff detailing how the Cardiff Exhibition came to be, and listing a few exhibits. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- 18th September 1895 issue of the Journal of Horticulture and Cottage Gardener reporting on the upcoming Cardiff Exhibition and noting engineering and mining exhibits were expected to dominate the event. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- Wales Online summarising the Cardiff Exhibition, and the royal visit filmed by Acres. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- 28th September 1896 promoting the upcoming Cardiff Exhibition and noting it would be opened by Lord Winsor. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- Lefelau Byw Living Levels summarising the event and the death of Evans. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- 7th August 1896 issue of The Photographic News reporting on the acclaim the film brought at the Royal Command Film Performance, allowing Acres to film Princess Maud's wedding the day after. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- FutureLearn declaring that the film was the first to feature British Royal Family members. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- British Film Institute page on Acres. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- Who's Who of Victorian Cinema page on Acres. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- The British Monarchy on Screen detailing Acres' ambition to gain royal favour, and the success of the Cardiff Exhibition recording. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- Essex Film Collective detailing how Acres recorded the 70mm film. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- The Beginnings of Cinema in England providing a detailed account of the film and the controversy over the "head scratching" scene. Retrieved 30th Apr '23
- The Royal Family detailing the origins of the Royal Command Film Performance. Retrieved 30th Apr '23