18th century theatre lighting


Well into the 18th century the lighting methods of the European theatre basically resembled the methods of 17th century theatre. The few lighting effects seen in the theatre were those painted on the scenery.

In England David Garrick, upon his return from Paris in 1765, introduced numerous 
stage reforms at the Drury Lane Theatre including the removal of the chandeliers from
the stage and a strong emphasis on lights located beyond the proscenium arch. 
These included winglights and an improved version of footlights called ‘floats’.

Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg, who joined the Drury Lane Theatre in 1771 as 
Garrick’s scenic designer, employed lighting to create spectacular scenic effects. 
He used color media and light changes for atmospheric effects such as moonlight, 
fire, dawn, and so on. De Loutherbourg also used the most advanced light source 
of the period, the Argand burner, invented in 1782, in order to achieve brighter and
more effective illumination.

In 1782 the Swiss engineer Amie’ Argand invented the Argand burner, which was 
the archetype for the kerosene lamp still in use today. The Argand burner however 
used oil instead of kerosene, which only came into wide use in 1859. The instrument 
included an oil receptacle and a glass cylinder in which the flame burned, protected, 
immensely reducing the danger of fire. The lamp was designed so that a supply of 
enriched oxygen entered through openings in the bottom of the lamp and flowed up
the cylinder and along the wick, feeding the flame. Colored light for special theatrical 
effects was achieved by simply placing colored glass in front of the light source.

Argand burners were introduced into the Odeon Theatre in Paris in 1784, when the 
Comedie Francaise premiered Le Marriage de Figaro. Within a short time these oil
lamps were adopted as the standard source of stage lighting all over Europe.

Lighting at The Royal Danish Theatre , Copenhagen, 1740:
The lighting at the Royal Danish Theatre (Det Kongelige Teater) in Copenhagen
in 1740 is concentrated in the downstage main acting area which is lit by
 overhead hoop candle chandeliers and footlights. It is evident that the audience
is in relative darkness. Note the members of the audience on the stage
(downstage right), and the “lighting operator” tending to the footlights.

The Royal Danish Theatre

Trimming the candles:

Candles had to be trimmed regularly before as well as during the performance.

Trimming the candles

An 18th Century Wick Trimmer:

A candle wick trimmer was a scissors-like instrument for cutting and arranging 
Candlelight would fade after 10 minutes (or a bit longer if the candles were of
high quality), and emit a lot of smoke. In order to revive the flame the tip of the
wick had to be cut periodically.
Trimmers were used from the mid-15th century.

candle wick trimmer

An 18th Century Footlight Lamp

This 18th century footlight apparatus consists of an oil vessel with five wicks 
and a reflector. The reflector was permanently attached to the floor, while the 
oil vessel, with the wicks, could be removed for maintenance.

An 18th Century Footlight Lamp

Candle Mould

This candle mould is made of sheet metal. Moulds such as this were 
commonplace items since the 15th century.

There were two popular methods for making candles: dipping them repeatedly
by hand or by using a candle mould. The mould was more efficient than dipping.
Candles were most commonly made of Tallow – animal fat. Tallow was poured 
into the mould after the wicks were secured to a wire or nail laid across the top
opening of each mould. After the cooling process, the mould was quickly placed 
in hot water and the candles removed and left to harden.

Candles made of beeswax mixed with tallow were more fragrant, and thus were far
superior, while candles made solely of beeswax were of course ideal, but these
were primarily reserved for use in churches and for special performances in the 

The wick of the candle was usually made from cotton.

Candle Mould

Rushes were among the earliest sources of artificial light [The book of trades, or Library of the useful arts indicates that the average rushlight was 12 inches (30 cm) long and burned for 10 to 15 minutes]. This rushlight holder dates from 1750. The rushlight was produced following the traditional method of dipping a reed in wax.

Rush light


18th Century Oil Lamps: 
Open-flame oil lamps which produced not only light but also much smoke and foul 
odour, were widely used for domestic and public lighting, including the theatre, from
 the middle ages until the end of the 18th century.

Oil lamps

Argand Lamp:

The Argand burner, which was introduced in 1784 by the Swiss inventor Argand,
was a major improvement in brightness compared to traditional open-flame oil 
lamps. Argand employed scientific knowledge on the role of the newly discovered 
oxygen in combustion, and by adding a chimney managed to increase the flow of 
air to the flame thus increasing its light output significantly.
 The new lamp was as much as tenfold brighter than the most advanced oil lamps 
of the time.

 Argand lamps were first introduced in the French theatre in 1784, but due to their 
high cost did not become a standard fixture in all theatres.

The Argand lamp


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