One of my many short-lived obsessions as a boy was with magic. Not the black arts kind, but the Three Card Trick variety. Apparently my nieces have been told that I will perform the Cup and Balls illusion next time I visit, so the British Library’s free exhibition on Victorian illusionists proved timely inspiration. Focusing on the golden era of music hall magic at the end of the nineteenth century, ‘There will be fun‘ is largely comprised of wonderful posters advertising performances by such luminaries as ‘Monsieur Evanion’ (Harry Evans to his mates) and the daddy of them all, Neville Maskelyne, who ran ‘Englands Home of Mystery’ from London’s Egyptian Hall.
The posters display a lost vernacular and grammar. M. Evanion’s “astounding feats and natural magic are based on principles not within the power of any other artist in the world and declared by the Press [sic] to be of so singular a nature as to be past all human conception, and that in an age and country less enlightened they would inevitably have appeared supernatural.”
The performances appeared to offer a curious mix of conjuring and new technology. A mainstay of Maskelyne’s show, for example, was a steam-powered ‘automaton’ (a primitive robot by the looks of it), that could beat humans at the card game, whist. Maskelyne divided his time between being an impressario and an inventor, including patenting the penny-lock that enabled access to public toilets for the first half of the twentieth century and earned the euphimism “spend a penny”.
Some of the magic appears to have been a little lower tech, however. Mesmerist Annie De Montford wowed audiences in her native Barnstaple with feats of hynotism, but was exposed on a tour of the United States for employing a team of accomplices, who posed as audience members each night and were the first to put their hands up to be entranced.
This decption aside, sadly there wasn’t much revelation of how the tricks were performed. Only the beautiful cover of Professor Hoffman’s ‘More Magic’ was displayed. So as young birthdays loom next month, it’s back to Ali Bongo’s book of junior magic for markontour..