The Golden Age of Magic and the books that propelled it are celebrated in a new exhibition at the Senate House Library of the University of London
Despite the rise of YouTube as the primary way of learning how to do most things these days, books about magic are how most magicians first learned their craft, and it was Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) that got the ball rolling as the first printed book in English to describe a magic trick.
Half a century later an anonymous little tome called Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain – The Art of Jugling Set Forth in His Proper Colours, Fully, Plainly, and Exactly, So That an Ignorant Person May Thereby Learn the Full Perfection of the Same, After a Little Practice (1634), really kicked the door open and set the formula for the illustrated conjuring manuals that followed.
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Both books are held in the collection of the Senate House Library at the University of London, whose new exhibition, Staging Magic – The Story Behind The Illusion celebrates the history of magic literature and the world’s most loved magic tricks and stage illusions – from magic’s early beginnings to its early 20th century heyday.
The latter is still regarded as a ‘golden age’ thanks to magicians and illusionists like Harry Houdini, Harry Price and David Devant who enthralled audiences with their showmanship and trickery – and it was books that allowed them to develop their stagecraft and showmanship.With the help of classic magical volumes the exhibition explores classic tricks such as pulling rabbits out of hats, sawing women in half and dismembered talking heads, right through to cigarette box magic tricks.
The books reveal how sleight-of-hand tricks (the “legerdemain” of Hocus Pocus Junior) and illusions staged in top theatres have been used to create mystery and entertainment, and then transferred to the home and even to the Tommies fighting in the trenches of WWI.
The selection of books has been aided by contemporary magician and card shark Drummond Money-Coutts, whose Netflix-commissioned show ‘Death by Magic’ aired at the end of November 2018. Clearly a connoisseur of magical printed works, he says the exhibition is displaying “some of the rarest, most influential texts on stage magic from over three centuries.”
Over 80 items from Senate House Library’s ‘Harry Price Library of Magical Literature’, which were gifted by Harry Price, former Vice-President of the Magic Circle (and first Chair of the BFI), to the central library of the University of London (now called Senate House Library), in 1936 appear in the show, which takes the visitor on a journey through five interconnected themes exploring how magic has remained a mainstay of popular culture in the western world for over 400 years.
And just in case the Magic Circle are getting concerned about disclosure, the exhibition also reveals how magic’s secrets have been kept as well as revealed, and how magicians have innovated to continue to surprise their audiences.
Each theme features some of the most important books in the history of magic alongside lesser-known works celebrating a range of genres in magic publishing, including major works from the 18th century, including Henry Dean’s much reprinted The Whole Art of Legerdemain, or, Hocus Pocus in Perfection and books that exposed the techniques of the most popular performers of the time, including Comus, Breslaw and Pinetti.
“On a personal level,” adds Money-Coutts, “seeing and experiencing these extraordinary works myself has been the very truest form of magic; what a beautiful insight into magic’s enigmatic past.”
Staging Magic – The Story Behind The Illusion runs from January 21 – June 15 2019. Admission is free. Visit the exhibition website at www.senatehouselibrary.ac.uk/exhibitions-and-events/exhibitions/staging-magic
Senate House Library
London, Greater London
Senate House Library is one of the UK’s largest research libraries focused on the arts, humanities, and social sciences, holding a wealth of primary material from the medieval period to the modern age. It houses and cares for over 2 million books, 50 special collections and 1,800 archival collections. With…