Collecting vintage film and theatre lighting

These hard-working lamps that once illuminated stars of stage and screen are casting their glamorous glow again, in industrial-inspired interiors, says Ruth Caven

1950s Mole-Richardson coverage light, from £1,200 from Ablectrics
1950s Mole-Richardson coverage light, from £1,200 from Ablectrics

Vintage industrial style has been cropping up in many a cool contemporary home for the past decade. But given the stark silhouettes and large scale of some pieces, it can be a tricky trend for spaces that aren’t themselves of industrial origin. One subtle – and glamorous – way to channel the look is through lighting used in theatre and film from the 1930s onwards.

c1935 Mole‑Richardson 20th Century Fox arc light, $22,390 from Cinema Antiques
c1935 Mole‑Richardson 20th Century Fox arc light, $22,390 from Cinema Antiques | Image: Bill Reiter, SOC, SMPTE, DP

“They’re like miniature lighting factories in a box,” says James Laws, a lighting designer who has worked in theatre for 50 years. “When rewired for domestic use, these lights allow you to vary the beam, brightness, strength and direction to create an inviting ambience. They also have an honourable history and may well have lit some famous faces.” Available in myriad shapes and sizes depending on their purpose (flood, spot, strip, etc), early examples are of cast alloy and, if left untouched, come with an aged metal patina or painted finish. As most theatre lights were suspended above the stage, they tended to be smaller and less powerful than their film counterparts and did not come with a stand, but many would have had metal barn-doors to direct the light.

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Laws cites Strand Electric, Furse, Mole‑Richardson and Hewitt Universal as names to look out for – and provenance is, of course, a key factor in the price. A pair of midcentury Strand Electric lights, salvaged from a West End theatre and mounted on tripods (they were restored by the late Andre Chalmers, whose family has now taken over his vintage lighting business in Tunbridge Wells), exceeded their Christie’s estimate of £1,200 to sell for £9,375 in July 2013, while Felix Lighting Specialists in Bath currently has six rare 1950s Mole-Richardson Sputnik film spotlights (designed to be hung from the ceiling), with powder-blue coating, available for £3,360 each.

1940s Bardwell & McAlister keg light, $925 from Scarpati Studio
1940s Bardwell & McAlister keg light, $925 from Scarpati Studio | Image: Scarpati

London TV commercials director Mark Denton initially acquired his large Mole-Richardson tripod lamp as a prop, but loved it so much it ended up in his living room. “I bought it from a shop in Marylebone for £1,250 a few years back and my only regret is that I didn’t buy more. The style of our London townhouse is Old Hollywood and I think three would have looked good together.” Meanwhile, Kevin Chilcott, Warminster-based owner of a plastering company and a collector of midcentury memorabilia, spent £2,400 in January on a 3m-high polished Mole-Richardson coverage light with a 20in Fresnel lens capable of flooding a stage or giving a soft spot. “I like quirky pieces from that era that complement each other; I’ve placed it next to an antique fuel pump,” he says.

1950s Mole-Richardson Sputnik film spotlight, £3,360 from Felix Lighting Specialists
1950s Mole-Richardson Sputnik film spotlight, £3,360 from Felix Lighting Specialists

Chilcott purchased his lamp from Ablectrics in Bristol (similar examples from £1,200), where owner Fraser Besant says pieces in such good condition are hard to come by. “The best ones have the maker’s mark or plaque intact, and both the stand and barn doors need to be original,” he explains. “My clients are after something unique that has been individually restored.”

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On the subject of restoration, Besant leaves some of the lights with their original paint, while stripping and polishing others to a chrome-like finish on request. But for purists like John Scarpati, a Virginia photographer who restores and sells these lights in small batches, the only way to showcase them is in their original form – dents and all. “I still disassemble every part and do a complete off-frame restoration; I just don’t overpolish,” he says. “These lights exude an unparalleled sense of aesthetics.” His collection consists mainly of Hollywood classics: Mole-Richardson, Otto K Olesen and Bardwell & McAlister, whose imposing keg lights with metal roller stands and 6in Fresnel lenses are particularly sought-after (he is currently selling two through Etsy for $925 each).

Not all industrial examples come mounted on tripods or stands: Bill Reiter, founder of Cinema Antiques in Texas (whose inventory includes a c1935 Mole‑Richardson 20th Century Fox arc light, used by the feature-film department between the 1930s and 1950s, for $22,390), has fashioned a Mole-Richardson spotlight into a desk lamp for himself, while London photographer Joe Giacomet counts two of the more unusual Furse strip lights, salvaged from a theatre in Wakefield, among his collection. Giacomet turned the lights – designed to illuminate large areas of the stage at once – on their sides, so they stood 2m tall and framed the woodburning stove in his warehouse living room. “They have nine bulbs each, so need to be set on low to exude a warm glow,” he says. “I expect you’d pay £850 for something similar.”

One area dealers agree on is that original showbiz lights are becoming harder to find, making them a shrewd investment. The previously popular polished chrome finish is also giving some ground to an interest in preserving their history. This is important to Norfolk-based Formula One engineer Ben Parker, whose 1930s Mole-Richardson broadside flood (used to highlight actors in close-up) came from Pinewood Studios and has been mounted on a height-adjustable metal Furse stand from the era. “It’s straight out of the theatre and into the home,” he says, “and all the better for not being polished or repainted.”

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