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Tricks of the trade

Jane Clinton takes in an exhibition celebrating the art of stage magic. Just like that!

31 January, 2019 — By Jane Clinton

Harry Price, pictured in 1930, had a ‘Magical Library’ of around 13,000 volumes

HARRY Price was just eight in 1889 when he watched a magic show.

One trick where two doves emerged from a hat captivated him and he asked his parents to explain it. They instead bought him Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic (1874). It was one of many books Price, who was born in London’s Red Lion Square, would devour as his interest in magic grew.

His “Magical Library” is a collection of around 13,000 volumes, some dating back to the 15th century, on the likes of magic, parapsychology, witchcraft and psychical research. It came to the central library of the University of London (now called Senate House Library) in 1936 and was bequeathed to it in 1948.

Around 80 items from this collection now form the basis of a new Senate House Library exhibition, Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion.

The exhibits include a rare first edition of Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584), the first printed book in English to describe a magic trick; as well as the 1634 edition of Hocus Pocus Junior: The Anatomie of Legerdemain, which set the formula for conjuring manuals through the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Legerdemain or sleight-of-hand is celebrated alongside of the world’s most loved magic tricks and stage illusions from the 16th century to the early 20th century.

These include the rabbit-from-a-top-hat-trick, which is believed to have been first performed by the 19th-century magician John Henry Anderson. He was reportedly given the stage name the “Great Wizard of the North” by Sir Walter Scott.

Sleight-of-hand tricks and illusions were staged in top theatres and were popular during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Versions of these tricks were packaged for children. Even British troops and medical staff of the First World War were sent pamphlets of tricks to boost morale.

Magic had to constantly evolve as tricks became well known.

One great innovator was Harry Houdini. Few may be aware of the man who inspired him: Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin.

He was one of the great conjurors of the 19th century and Houdini even took his name and made it his own.

Houdini, however, was later critical of his hero in suggesting he took undue credit for other magicians’ work in his book The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (1908).

While women were very much involved in magic they were often publicly overlooked. In the late 19th century Adelaide Herrmann toured with her husband Alexander across America performing the dangerous bullet-catching trick. After his death she eventually performed on her own and became known as the “Queen of Magic”.

Another magic queen was Mercedes Talma. A member of a successful early 20th-century magic trio, the English-born “Talma”, as she was known, was also a highly skilled sleight-of-hand performer known as the “Queen of Coins”.

She plucked coins from thin air and could palm an impressive 30 coins at one time.

As for Harry Price, he was also an investigator of mediums, hauntings and supernatural phenomena. He exposed fakery in spirit photography and claimed to have found the most haunted house in England, Borley Rectory in Essex. (That claim was widely disputed.)

He was also an author, an amateur magician and had a keen interest in film. He was involved in setting up the Shakespeare Film Society and the National Film Library – a forerunner of the BFI’s film archive. He also made his own films.

Included in the exhibition is mesmerising footage shot by Price of one of his experiments – a chilling recreation of a 15th-century ritual which was supposed to transform a goat into a man. The goat, however, very much remained a goat.

Price died in March 1948. His magic, however, most certainly lives on.

Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion is at Senate House Library, University of London, WC1E 7HU, until June 15, admission free. See


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