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British Library conjures up Victorian magic

The Great Alvantee at Sanger’s Amphitheatre
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Magic has been around since the dawn of man, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century that it transmogrified into a form of mass entertainment.

In a new exhibition, There Will Be Fun, the British Library has joined forces with the Magic Circle Museum to look at the life and work of four popular Victorian illusionists – Evanion, John Nevil Maskelyne, Lord George Sanger and Annie De Montford – along with the comedy performer Dan Leno, not an illusionist but someone who created his own kind of magic on stage.

All five are brought to life in video enactments written and directed by co-curator of the show, Christopher Green, featuring various actors, magicians and stand-ups.

Many of the beautifully preserved posters, handbills and other ephemera on display were collected by Evanion, aka Henry Evans (1832-1905), who enjoyed a long stage career as a conjuror, juggler and ventriloquist, taking his inspiration from the Frenchman Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, the first magician to perform in evening dress.

Evanion performed before Queen Victoria at Sandringham and the Prince and Princess of Wales at Marlborough House, after which he was forever billed as “the Royal Conjuror”, showing a canny gift for marketing.

Maskelyne (1839-1917), a towering figure in Victorian magic, was equally adept at marketing himself, as well as creating illusions to dazzle his adoring public. One such was a mechanical humanoid – in reality an ingeniously fashioned puppet – that he called Psycho, who played whist and drew lifelike sketches as the audience looked on. Remember, this was a full century before animatronics was dreamt of.

Psycho made its debut at the Egyptian Hall in London – “England’s Home of Mystery” run by Maskelyne and fellow magician David Devant – in 1875, and went on to feature in some 4,000 performances at the venue over a 30-year period. It caused a running media debate about how the card-playing automaton worked.

One of the most colourful acts of the mid-to-late-19th century was Sanger, founder of Sanger’s Circus, which pedalled any number of freak shows, from clairvoyant ponies to cannibal pygmies to Toby the Learned Pig. Sanger’s touring shows would play up to 200 venues a year and, according to Sanger’s autobiography, Seventy Years a Showman, touring in Victorian times was a tough old game, often involving vicious punch-ups on the road with other variety acts to be top dog.

Indeed, Sanger met a violent end, though not as a result of any professional rivalry. Having retired to his farm in north London, he was killed by one of his farm hands in an unprovoked attack in 1911 at the age of 84.

It was extremely rare for women to succeed in this male-dominated world, but De Montford, a former mill worker, made a name for herself out of mesmerism, a form of hypnotism in which volunteers were put in a trance in order that miracle cures could be administered by suggestion. In a flyer for one of her appearances, De Montford is described as “the most intellectual and amusing entertainment now travelling”.

You feel Leno is the odd one out of these illusionists and conjurors, though he is undoubtedly the best-known of all those featured and is often credited as the inventor of stand-up comedy. His music hall act consisted of patter, characters, sketches and clog dancing (he started out as a champion clog dancer). He also created the pantomime dame.

In addition to various playbills, posters, photographs and a video re-enactment by Tony Lidington (who also plays Leno in his own one-man show, Dan Leno – The King’s Jester), there is a recently restored and rather touching home movie of Leno, fooling around with his children at the height of his fame, on show.

All five artists, or rather the actors and magicians who play them, will appear in the flesh, as it were, at a special live show, Late at the Library – There Will Be Fun on November 25, hosted by Christopher Green, himself a performer, and featuring newly commissioned comedy, cabaret, magic and music.

There are other live shows scheduled for November 7 – We Are Amused! A Night of Victorian Humour, in which Zoe Lyons, Bob Mills and Iszi Lawrence will perform various sketches and jokes from the period recently unearthed in the archives of the British Library; Crinolines and Other Victorian Oddities on November 8, in which rock legend Brian May and historian Denis Pellerin will present an evening of 19th-century stereoscopes, requiring 3D glasses; and A Christmas Magic Show! on December 9, featuring magicians Romany and David Weeks and ventriloquist Dave Andrews.

Finally, in January, Derren Brown and Nina Conti will present an evening of self-revelation, talking about their respective crafts and what they owe to the illusionists and ventriloquists of the past.

There Will Be Fun is at the British Library, London, until March 12

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