Up high in the imposing Senate House in Bloomsbury, a magical exhibition of conjuring history has recently opened.
The history of performing magic is often shown more often in stage materials, such as posters and music hall ephemera, but this is a very different collection – mainly of books.
For a trade that famously guards its secrets, they are often quite easy to read about, simply by picking up a suitable book – and books on magic first appeared as early as 1584, although Reginald Scot’s The Discoverie of Witchcraft was more about debunking the claims of witches.
The first dedicated to the sort of magic we think of today came out in 1614, and a copy is on display in the exhibition which then runs around the room showing off various books and documents.
The exhibition features over 60 stories which focuses on sleight-of-hand (legerdemain) performance magic, and stage magic and illusions, through over 60 stories across 80 or more items.
From the first magazine featuring legerdemain: The Conjuror’s Magazine (1792) through to the rise in popularity of magic in the late 19th century and early 20th century and the books published to show off how these tricks were performed.
The books — as someone who used to do magic — are often half biography and half a book of lessons, and some of the best have explained how a particular magician did their tricks their own way. Leaving the student magician to find their own style.
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.
Unsurprisingly, Harry Houdini is here, and his friendship with fellow debunker of spiritualists, Harry Price is highlighted — which is apt as the exhibition itself is made up from the Harry Price collection which was donated to the university.
The exhibition, ending with how those skilled in magical performances could see through and debunk the spiritualists has come full circle to the very first book published on magic — back in 1584 which was also debunking witches.
As a display it could be seen as just a collection of old books — or as a unique insight into an aspect of popular entertainment that claims to hide its secrets, even though they are easy to uncover. And if you do uncover them, then it doesn’t spoil the trick, as you can watch a really good performance and fully appreciate the effort that goes into making it look so mysterious.
The exhibition, Staging Magic – The Story Behind The Illusion is open until 15th June 2019 and is free to visit.
There’s also a very good booklet handed out (or download here) that lists every single item on display in detail — and would itself be a collectable for anyone interested in magic.