Wonder Workers and the Art of Illusion

Wednesday, 8 March 2017, by Bertie Pearce

Spellbinding would insufficiently describe what we witnessed at this WHS Meeting. With his entertaining patter, impressive ability to remember the names of his “assistants” in the audience, humorous asides, and the participative nature of the evening, Bertie gave us a truly magical experience.

He interspersed historical aspects of what he termed a “lecture” with amazing tricks. A newspaper, torn into 64 pieces, was miraculously restored, a bible went up in flames, yet was unburnt, six metal rings adhered together as if magnetised, yet fell apart at will, a lady in the audience had a beanie hat with matching handbag fashioned out of paper in seconds, yet none present could ascribe all of this to anything other than brilliant magic.

In ancient times, sorcerer priests had held power over people, employing “miracles”, and the Apocrypha refers to illusions, that most enduring aspect of magic. The heyday of illusion was the Victorian music hall, William Bullock’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly becoming known as the home of mystery.

Sleight of hand, or légerdemain,  the French term, requires the hand to be quicker than the eye, thus creating the illusion. Seneca wrote “in which it is the very trickery that pleases me. But show me how the trick is done, and I have lost interest therein”. This is the essence of illusion. The famous painting Le Jongleur, by Hieronymus Bosch, illustrates the three balls and three cups trick, which Bertie brought to life before our eyes. Not only did he demonstrate this centuries-old trick, but completed it, producing a potato, an onion, an orange, and a large melon, which latter leapt out of his hat onto an ironing board serving as a table, causing it to collapse. Wonderful!

In 1584, Reginald Scott published The Discoverie of Witchcraft, writing not for, but against, the belief in witchcraft, positing that it did not exist. This was most important, since, under Henry VIII (1509-1547), magicians and conjurors faced the death penalty for their art.

Isaac Fawkes, an outrageous 18th century entertainer, was the first to employ close-up tricks, with a ball, bell, and goose egg. Bertie replicated this trick, even perplexing an audience member with a non-sounding bell (which, of course, rang perfectly in Bertie’s hands). William Hogarth portrayed such tricks in, for example, his Southwark Fair. A Century after Fawkes, one Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin wrote books on conjuring, being regarded as the father of modern magic. As an actor playing the part of a magician, he entertained Queen Victoria at Osborne House, Sandringham, and twice at Buckingham Palace. Patronage indeed! So famous was Houdin that the Hungarian-born Erik Weisz took the name Houdini as his own professional identity.

Later in Victorian times, the American, William Robinson, achieved fame as the supposedly Chinese Chung Ling Soo, whose speciality was to catch a live bullet between his teeth. Unfortunately, an accident saw him die on stage in 1918, at the Wood Green Empire, before 3000 customers. That this trick is clearly extremely dangerous is borne out by the fact that 24 others to date have been killed in its attempt. Another Victorian trick, thankfully devoid of danger, involved John Henry Pepper cleverly introducing a ghost (Pepper’s ghost), using mirrors. Interestingly, the expression “smoke and mirrors” owes its origin to the various props serving magicians over the years. Lewis Carroll adored magic, drawing on Pepper when creating Alice in Wonderland.

David Devant [Wighton], regarded as one of the greatest magicians, famous for his Boy, Girl, and Egg, and Mascot Moth tricks. He asserted that it is “all done by kindness”. He became, in 1905, the first President of The Magic Circle, whose motto, indocilis privata loqui is rendered in English as “not apt to disclose secrets”.

In 1934,  Rudyard Kipling, fascinated by magic, applied, successfully, for membership of The Magic Circle. During our post-War TV age, famous names in magic include David Nixon, Paul Daniels, Robert Harbin (the Zigzag Lady his speciality), spoon-bending Uri Gellér, and that greatest of magicians, Tommy Cooper, who died on stage in 1984. Typically, the USA market failed to understand Cooper, regarding him as an inept magician, embarrassingly incapable of getting things right!

Bertie concluded his lecture/show by informing us that today’s main audiences are found on cruise ships (indeed, Bertie spent some years providing entertainment on the world’s oceans), and sharing the fact that, on his maternal side, he is related to the building firm Higgs & Hill, his relatives Derek and Martha Hill having enthralled audiences at Leatherhead in 1938 with their demonstration of the art of levitation.

Indisputably, a truly magical, memorable, and thoroughly enjoyable evening!

Stefan Gatward