In her boudoir, supposedly free from prying eyes, a woman undresses to her petticoat before settling down to read a book. Is this Britain’s oldest erotic film? Modern viewers might question how genuinely erotic it is, but it certainly pushes the boundaries of what was permissible in 1896 – and there’s little doubt that it was intended to titillate.
Although little is known of the life and work of Brighton pioneer Esmé Collings beyond the sketchiest biographical details, it is now believed that this very early example of risqué Victorian film-making (also known under the more prosaic title Woman Undressing) is his work, as the perforations on the original negative match those of his own equipment (prior to the commercial availability of pre-perforated film stock, pioneering film-makers had to punch the holes themselves). The quality of the lighting suggests that the boudoir was probably recreated in a photographic studio: Collings had several, based in Brighton, Hove, Bath and London.
It seems certain that the film’s purpose was primarily to titillate, though the lady in question keeps her voluminous petticoat firmly on throughout the entire disrobing process. It’s impossible to say whether this was to achieve a specific erotic frisson or because the film-maker wanted to play safe with regard to Britain’s obscenity laws of the time (which were so strict that the philosopher Bertrand Russell once complained that he would have to break them in order to campaign for their reform), but the latter seems most likely – as does the theory that the film would have been restricted to gentlemen’s smoking concerts and not publicly exhibited.
Albert ‘Esme’ Collings was born in 1859, filmed about two dozen movies in 1896, and lived until 1936. He went into business with William Friese-Greene about 1890, worked as a photographer until about 1906 and then retired to paint.
Although this is of some interest as early soft-core pornography and shows the good composition that would be expected of a professional photographer, there isn’t much else to say. It, and Mr. Collings remain a minor footnote in the history of movies, with a single entry in the index.