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Senate House Library’s latest exhibition will put a spell on you


Research librarian Tansy Barton introduces Senate House Library’s exhibition on the history of magic from the 16th to the early 20th century, which taps into the fabulous world of the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature.

Staging Magic

Focusing on conjuring and magic as entertainment, a tradition that has fascinated and entranced audiences for hundreds, if not thousands of years, ‘Staging magic: the story behind the illusion’ is a celebration of some 400 years of the history of magic. More than 80 items and some 60 stories explore early accounts of tricks, how secrets were revealed, how magic and magicians have innovated to keep audiences entertained, and magic as a popular pastime for children and amateur performers. Through four themes – magic’s spell on society, magic and innovation, magic for all and masters of magic and their Influence – the exhibition also traces some of the great magicians of the golden age of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Harry Price: the man behind the magic

Exhibits come from just one of the library’s many collections: The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature made up of books, manuscripts, prints and ephemera amassed by psychical researcher Harry Price and given to the University of London in 1936. Intended as a resource for researchers of abnormal phenomena, it covers a huge range of subjects including magic, witchcraft, psychical research, parapsychology, the occult, the paranormal and much more. The book collection alone stands at more than 13,000 items and is one of the library’s most used special collections. 

Featured in the exhibition are items exploring Price’s connections to the world of magic and his collecting, which started at aged eight with a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1876). They include the insignia he received in 1932 as vice-president of Will Goldston Magicians’ Club, a first edition of Modern Magic, and film footage from some of Price’s investigations of the 1930s. Compiled in 1935 by the National Film Library, the film provides a demonstration of the Indian rope trick, Price performing an experiment in occult ritual on the Brocken mountain peak to transform a goat into a man (the magician Horace Goldin purchased the same goat for an illusion recreating the experiment), and firewalking by Pakistani mystic and magician, Kuda Bux. 

Magic’s spell on society

The first part of the exhibition, ‘magic’s spell on society’, looks at how magic’s secrets have been revealed, and its place in popular culture and society, particularly through satirical responses. Among the display is The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, one of the earliest printed works in English on conjuring, which aimed to combat superstitious beliefs in the power of the supernatural. Other works are as diverse as a 1722 pamphlet by Jonathan Swift satirising the proposal for a Bank of Ireland in the language of the travelling conjuror making fantastic claims, and Tricks for the Trenches and Wards, a pamphlet to ‘provide many a bright moment in a tedious wait or dreary convalescence’ during the First World War. 

Magic and innovation

Throughout the centuries magicians have innovated their art to keep audiences hooked. From the 18th-century trend of combing sleight of hand and scientific amusements in shows billed as philosophical exhibitions to the grand stage illusions of the 19th and early 20th century. The section headlined ‘Magic and innovation’ features a playbill from the 1848 London tour of Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, the ‘father of modern magic’, a report in the Magic Circular on the first public performance of sawing in women in half by P T Selbit in 1921, and a curious prospectus for an illusion from the 1930s called Blown to Atoms.

Magic for all

In the 19th century, the commercial aspects of magic come to the fore with growing numbers of magic books for children and amateurs. Among those on display under ‘magic for all’, are early works for children, including a chapbook that describes methods of producing fireworks and explosions with phosphorus and gunpowder alongside simple magic tricks. The growth in the trade of magic apparatus, kits and books is shown in catalogues from Davenports and Hamleys. Even Oxo got in on the act with a pamphlet of simple tricks.

Masters of magic

‘Masters of magic’, part four of the exhibition focuses on the exploits of some of the biggest names in the history of the genre and some of the works that have become essential reading for magicians. There is Harry Houdini letter’s to Harry Price discussing their shared interest in book collecting, and a copy of his own work in the history of magic, The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin. Other works on and by performers include the Maskelynes, Will Goldston, David Devant, Alexander Herrmann and Howard Thurston. 

Tansy Barton is curating Senate House Library’s ‘Staging magic: the story behind the illusion’. This free exhibition, which runs until 15 June, incorporates displays from The Harry Price Library of Magical Literature with film screenings and the launch, on 14 March, of Gustav Kuhn’s new book, ‘Experiencing the Impossible: the Science of Magic’.