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Senate House Library

Staging Magic – The Story Behind The Illusion


Written by
Tansy Barton


Staging Magic – The Story Behind The Illusion exhibition covers a long period in the history of magic, from the 16th to the early 20th century and features some of the most precious and exciting treasures of the collection. The starting point was the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature. The collection holds over 13,000 items covering a huge range of subjects: psychical research and parapsychology, spiritualism, the paranormal, the occult, effective magic, telepathy and mentalism, prognostication, ventriloquism among many others. With Staging Magic, we are going back to where the collection began with conjuring and performance magic.

The launch of the exhibition took place on Thursday 17 January 2019, to mark the anniversary of Harry Price’s birth (17 Jan 1881) and celebrate the history of magic through talks from Library staff and performances by magicians, Gustav Kuhn, magician and psychologist at Goldsmiths, and Spenser Wood, winner of ‘The Magic Circle Close Up Magician of the Year’. The exhibition was also reviewed in The Times and Museum Crush on the same day, building momentum for the public opening this Monday.

With thousands of items in the Harry Price collection, we have had to be specific in the kind of magic featured in the exhibition, and chose to focus on sleight-of-hand (legerdemain) performance magic, and stage magic and illusions, through over 60 stories across 80 or more items. Through these, we explore early accounts of tricks that are still familiar to audiences today, how magic and magicians have innovated to keep audiences entertained, magic as a popular past time for children and amateurs and the stories of some of the great magicians of magic’s golden age of the 19th and early 20th centuries.


Among the highlights are the first edition of Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft (1584) for its chapter on ‘the art of juggling discovered’ which includes descriptions of the tricks of jugglers of the 16th century and the first edition Hocus Pocus Junior (1634), the first work dedicated to legerdemain in English to feature illustrations of its tricks. The book was one of Price’s prize acquisitions and is referenced in a signed photograph Harry Houdini sent to Price, also on display. Innovation in magic is explored through the work of the great French magician of the 1840s Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, including a playbill from his 1848 London tour. From books produced for those learning magic are Parlour Magic (1838): an early book for children dedicated to sleight of hand and magical experiments and a pamphlet produced by Oxo to promote their products through basic magic tricks. We also look at Harry Price’s work and connections to magic including a short film produced in the 1930s made up of footage of his investigations and experiments, including the Indian rope trick.

Harry Price: The Man Behind the Magic

Harry Price related the origins of his interests in psychical research and paranormal phenomena in the catalogue of his collection published in 1929: a cold January morning in around 1890, the 8 year old Price, suffering from toothache was taken to a travelling show in Shrewsbury of the ‘Great Sequah’ who promised to cure all ills. After being miraculously relived of his painful molar while districted by doves and other items produced from a hat, the young Price watched the show of magic and faith healing spellbound. Pestering his parents for an explanation of the miracles he had seen, he eventually received Professor Hoffman’s Modern Magic (1871) to reveal the magician’s secrets. The book became, in Price’s words, the ‘nucleus of this collection’- intended to provide the resources for investigators and researchers of both false and potentially genuine phenomena. The young Price, in a scenario familiar to many captured by the spell of magic, became an amateur conjuror and ‘spent all his pocket money on magical literature’. He went on to be known not for conjuring but for his well-publicised exploits in psychical research, including testing mediums, investigating Gef the talking mongoose and Borley Rectory, the ‘most haunted house in England.’

Magic resources

Highlights from the exhibits can be found on the exhibition website, including web exclusives and the exhibition guide can be downloaded here. Over the course of the exhibition we will be adding content to the resources and blog that expand on ideas in the exhibition. The accompanying events season includes film screenings, magic shows and book launches to bring the history of magic to life. Events are announced on our events page throughout the season – so watch this space!

Explore the full Harry Price collection

The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature and archive is available to all Senate House Library members through the Special Collections service. The collection is fully catalogued on the Library and Archive catalogues. Some of the exhibits and much more from the collection can also be found on the Victorian Popular Culture database, now accessible to all members at the Library onsite and available offsite for SAS students and staff with current SAS card, and Alumni with current SHL card.

Tansy Barton

Research Librarian & Curator of Staging Magic - The Story Behind The Illusion