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Staging Magic – four centuries of books that taught us sleight-of-hand

Title Harry Houdini Held at Senate House Library, University of London ReferenceHPF/5B/4DateundatedScope and ContentColour illustrated poster for 'Harry Houdini, King of Cards', featuring head and shoulders illustration of Houdini, printed by the National Printing and Engraving Company, Chicago

Harry Houdini ‘King of Cards’ poster, circa 1912. Courtesy of Senate House Library

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.

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.

a photo of a 1920s book cover with a magician and female assistant

Stage Illusions by Will Goldston (London: The Magician Ltd, 1912). Courtesy of Senate House Library

a frontispiece of a book on magic with an illustration of stage craft and a drawing of a wizard

The Magician’s Own Book (London: John Camden Hotten), 1871. Courtesy of Senate House Library

an illustration from a book with a man in seventeenth century dress performing magic tricks

Hocus Pocus Junior (London: R. M[ab], 1634). Courtesy of Senate House Library

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.”

a signed photo of a man smiling towards the camera

Head and shoulders photograph of Houdini, signed with note to Harry Price, 14 September 1921. Courtesy of Senate House Library

an old poster showing a magician perform the Indian Rope trick

Thurston the famous magician ‘East Indian Rope Trick’ poster, circa 1928. Courtesy of Senate House Library

a black and white photo of a seated man with an open book on his lap

Photograph of Harry Price, c.1930

the embossed front of a hardback book with image of a magician on stage in tail coat conjuring from a top hat

Modern Magic: a Practical Treatise on the Art of Conjuring by Professor Hoffman (London; New York; Routledge, 1877, 2nd edition). Courtesy of Senate House Library

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.”

a book with a soldier holding a swagger stick on its cover

Tricks for the Trenches and Wards, Draklof Charles Folkard (London; Jarrold, 1915). Courtesy of Senate House Library

a front cover of a magazine with an iluustraton of male magicians in dress coats performing tricks

The Eagle Magician magazine, January 1920. Courtesy of Senate House Library

a photo of a three books on display on a shelf with red velvet curtains in the background

Courtesy of Senate House Library

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…

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