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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: March 2014

6 - Flickering Effects: George Robert Sims and the Psychology of the Moving Image


In the preface to his two-volume series on London Life, The Social Kaleidoscope (1881), the well-known late nineteenth-century social reformer and journalist George Robert Sims clarified his interest in the descriptive possibilities of kaleidoscopic vision:

My purpose in these pages is not to strain metaphor, or to deal figuratively with important social subjects, but rather to describe truthfully and fearlessly the figure or shape of humanity which each turn of the Social Kaleidoscope offers for observation. Nay more than this. It will be my endeavour to trace it from the moment when the component parts are hurrying together, and to follow it down to the period when the atoms have disparted and the figure is destroyed.

Rather than turning to photography, as so many of his contemporaries who were documenting urban life in the 1880s were doing, Sims found in the endless transformations of the kaleidoscope the ideal analogy for the perpetually moving scenes of London life. Like Charles Baudelaire's ‘lover of Universal life’, Sims embraced the kaleidoscope as a model of receptive consciousness, transforming an optical recreation commonly associated with derivative illusion into a revelatory device that illuminated the intimate details of everyday life in motion.

The kaleidoscopic conceit was also conveniently expansive, freeing Sims from the demands of realistic description by literally shifting the focus to the dynamics of perception itself. How one saw the moving scenes of London was as important as the revelation of various social truths.