The Miniature Theaters of Martin Engelbrecht July 23, 2009 – Tags: Engelbrecht, Engraving, Miniature Theaters, Optics, Rare Books
In the fourth decade of the eighteenth century a new form of entertainment emerged in a world hungry for novelty, cleverness, and beauty in the privacy of one’s home.
Artist Martin Engelbrecht (1684-1756) and his brother Christian were printsellers and engravers in Augsburg, Germany during the eighteenth century. Martin Engelbrecht engraved some plates after Rugendas and other masters; his other works included illustrations for Ovid’s Metamorphoses, The War of Spanish Succession, Les Architectes Princiers by P. Decker, 92 views of Venice, and a series of prints of workers and their dress, Assemblage Nouveau Des Manouvries Habilles, published at Augsburg, circa 1730.
Also in about 1730, he created cards for miniature theaters, which when inserted into a display box showed religious scenes and pictures of daily life in a 3D perspective view. He devoted an entire series of these to the Italian theater. This effort resulted in home theater long before the concept was appropriated for use by cable television and the video/DVD industry.
Engelbrecht, “Garden of Eden” c. 1730
Engelbrecht’s miniature theaters or dioramas evolved from his large-scale Zograscope images and are regarded as the earliest “paper” theaters in history. They were the forerunners of the peepshow books popularized by Dean & Son of London during the mid-nineteenth century, and have been cited by photographers and cinematographers for their early optical effects and appreciated as an aid to creating dramatic perspective on film.
Engelbrecht, “Oktoberfest” c. 1730
“A celebrated engraver of his time, Engelbrecht dominated the print trade in Augsburg. Best known for his portraits of monarchs as well as his intricate landscapes, Engelbrecht’s work is beyond compare. Some of his best work was with optical prints. He used these in his perspective boxes and miniature theatres. Typically 8 cards would be inserted into a peepbox, consecutively, which provided imagery similar to that of a theatre scene, or play. The view had great perspective. (The History of the Discovery of Cinematography).
“In the 18th century dioramas became very popular as a means of entertainment. Around 1730, the Augsburg copperplate engraver and publisher Martin Engelbrecht created miniature theater[s]. [They] consist of 5-8 scenery-like sheets, which create a perspective image if arranged one behind the other. Along with religious themes, these scenes show courtly life, the seasons…These small-size dioramas are regarded as the precursors of the paper theaters that became popular in the 19th century.”
“The first true movable books published in any large quantity were those produced by Dean & Son, a publishing firm founded in London before 1800. By the 1860’s the company claimed to be the ‘originator of childrens’ movable books in which characters can be made to move and act in accordance with the incidents described in each story.’ From the mid-19th century Dean turned its attention to the production of movable books and between the 1860’s and 1900 they produced about fifty titles. To construct movable books, Dean established a special department of skilled craftsmen who prepared the hand-made mechanicals. The designers used the peep-show principle of cut-out scenes aligned one behind the other to give a three-dimensional effect. Each layer was fixed to the next by a piece of ribbon that emerged behind the uppermost portion, and when this was pulled, the whole scene sprang up into perspective.” (Montanaro, Ann. A Concise History of Pop-Up and Moveable Books).
From holograph numbering to the rear of each card, we know that Engelbrecht created at least forty-one sets of miniature theater dioramas. Many if not most have yet to be accounted for. All are scarce, many extremely so: these miniature theater engraved cards were roughly handled and often. That any have survived is quite remarkable.