Smoke and Mirrors

The Psychology of Magic

“Magic is the only honest profession. A magician promises to deceive you and he does.”
– Karl Garmain (1878-1959)

The psychology of the human mind, sleight of hand, misdirection and (occasionally) a gullible audience, are key parts of a magician or conjurer’s act. Knowing how the mind works is an important skill for those in the magic business – a vital element for all astonishing feats of trickery. This year, the Wellcome Collection explores the worlds of psychology and entertainment to discover the truth about deception. In a free exhibition, Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic, visitors are given the opportunity to see magic props up close, including spirit photographs, Derren Brown’s gorilla suit, Tommy Cooper’s fez and Paul Daniels’ sawing-in-half box.

For centuries, magicians have stunned audiences with extraordinary acts that leave people believing in magic. In recent years, scientists have begun to understand how they utilise the gap between what spectators think they perceive and what they actually see. The exhibition is split into three parts: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, which have all been or are undergoing examination by psychologists and neuropsychologists.

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Witchcraft – Arthur Boyd Houghton, 1871

The wars of the 18th and 19th centuries led to a rise in the belief in spiritualism. Thousands of people lost loved ones through warfare or disease and the practices of the Occult, mystics, mediums, theosophers and magicians became appealing as a result. In the hopes that they could connect with the dead, people flocked to séances and latched on to anyone who claimed to be able to speak to spirits.

Often, people created or bought their own ouija board made up of numbers, letters and a variety of other symbols, through which they hoped to receive messages directly from spirits without the help of a medium. Participants would place their fingers upon a planchette on top of a board and let the spirit guide them to the correct letters or numbers to spell out the answers to questions they asked. Inevitably, someone would be deliberately pushing the planchette to make it appear as though a spirit was present.

Séances were particularly popular during the Victorian era. Due to people’s desperation to contact the spirits of loved ones, it was easy for mediums to make them believe they had been successful with clever tricks involving moving objects and levitating furniture. Usually occurring in the dark, magicians and mediums used a number of tricks to convince vulnerable minds that someone was trying to contact them.

In the early 1900s, William S. Marriott, also known by the stage name Dr Wilmar, was a British magician who became well known for exposing fraudulent spiritualist mediums. Pearson’s magazine, which specialised in speculative literature, politics and the arts, commissioned Marriott to write a series of illustrated articles investigating mediums so that readers could “judge for themselves the pros and cons of this tremendously important subject.”

Alongside Marriott’s articles, he posted photographs of himself demonstrating several effects commonly produced during séances. Levitating tables were often raised by the medium’s foot to make it appear as though they were floating. Marriott also discovered the methods used to create ghostly shapes and movements in the dark. Often, mediums were tied to their chairs to convince participants that they could have no possible involvement with the paranormal activity. In the dark, however, the restrained medium still had access to poles attached to objects, which he or she could move surreptitiously. An example of this is “spirit hands” that appear to surround the medium, however, with the lights on, it is possible to see the dummy arms attached to sticks and poles, which are being controlled by the medium’s hands, almost like puppets.

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Spirit Photography

In his exposé, Marriott also debunked spirit photographs. Some photographers claimed to have captured evidence of a ghost on film, which materialised during the development processes. Sitters claimed no one else was present and yet a ghostly figure could clearly be seen in the background of portraits, family photos and so forth. Whilst many believed these were the result of a psychic force, sceptics suggested there may have been fluid on the plate of the camera, which produced the ghostly appearance. Marriott, however, discovered the truth about this fraudulent trickery.

At the same time that society was lapping up paranormal activities and psychic experiments, others set up the Society for Psychical Research in Cambridge to investigate and try to understand these events and abilities. In 1893, the world-renowned author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) joined their ranks and paid witness to William Marriott’s demonstration and explanation about spirit photography.

Marriott produced his own spirit photographs, all the while explaining to Doyle how he had manipulated the images to make it appear as though a spirit was present. Publically, Doyle stated, “Mr Marriott has clearly proved one point, which is that a trained conjurer can, under the close inspection of three pairs of critical eyes, put a false image upon a plate. We must unreservedly admit it.”

Unlike today where smartphones and digital cameras take a photo instantly, the oldest cameras involved using plates, special papers, development fluid and many more elements. If, for example, a plate was to be used more than once, it would pick up two different images, creating a double exposure. This way, photographers could take a photo of a “ghost” and combine it with another (ghost-free) photograph.

During the 19th century, Ira Erastus Davenport (1839-1911) and William Henry Davenport (1841-1877), known as the Davenport Brothers, were famous for presenting illusions and other supposedly supernatural acts. Time and again, the brothers were proved to be frauds, and yet they continued to be a popular act in both the United States and England. Their most famous act was the cabinet box illusion during which the brothers were tied up and placed in a box full of musical instruments. The members of the audience, who believed neither brother was able to move, were amazed when they heard the musical instruments being played. On opening the box, the brothers remained tied up in the positions in which they had been left.

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Maskelyne and Cook Poster

In 1865, John Nevil Maskelyne (1839-1917), an English stage magician and, interestingly, the inventor of the pay toilet, attended a performance of the Davenport Brothers’ Public Cabinet Séance in Cheltenham Town Hall. During the show, a faulty piece of equipment meant Maskelyne was witness to Ira Davenport throwing musical instruments by hand inside the cabinet, despite being tied up.

After exposing the Davenport Brothers, Maskelyne and his friend George Alfred Cooke (1825-1905) put on a magic show at the Egyptian Hall in Picadilly where they not only performed impressive illusions but revealed how public séances were conducted. Video clips of similar exposés are played on screen throughout the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition.

Maskelyne and Cook inspired other magicians to publically investigate mediums who were suspected frauds. These “anti-spiritualist” shows were extremely successful and proved as popular as the original séances and magic shows. Magicians such as Harry Price (1881-1947) and Harry Houdini (1874-1926) exposed many mediums including Margery Crandon (1888-1941) and Leonora Piper (1857-1950).

Through watching and debunking mediums, magicians and conjurors, psychical researchers laid the foundations for important discoveries about the human mind, perception and belief. Today, psychologists at the Mind Attention & General Illusory Cognition (MAGIC) Lab at Goldsmiths University of London, are examining the act of misdirection in performances of magic tricks. Dr Gustav Kuhn, the director of the MAGIC Lab and president of the Science of Magic Association explains during the exhibition via a series of videos the misdirection of perpetual reasoning using footage from his 2006 study There’s more to magic than meets the eye.

With the aid of eye-tracking technology, Kuhn and his contemporaries have shown that magicians are very good at distracting their audience and making them look elsewhere, thus missing the moment the trick takes place. Kuhn also reveals that people often fail to see what is in front of their very eyes. The Vanishing Ball Illusion, shown in one of Kuhn’s short films, demonstrates this phenomenon. The magician repeatedly throws a ball up into the air and catches it, however, on the final throw he pretends to throw it, making it look like the ball has vanished into thin air. Many spectators claim to have seen the ball leave the magicians hand, whereas, in reality, the ball remains concealed in the magician’s fist.

By repeatedly throwing the ball, the magician convinces the spectator’s brain that it knows what will happen next. The movement of the hand on the final throw makes the brain believe that it will see the ball go up in the air. The brain registers something a tenth of a second after the eyes have seen it, therefore, by the time the brain has caught up, it appears as though the ball has disappeared.

The art of misdirection is a skill that all conjurors must learn. It involves making the audience relax their focus at a key moment and being able to guide them to look in the wrong (or right) place at the right time. Magic shows remain popular today and involve all sorts of simple tricks that when executed perfectly appear to be pure magic. With the invention of television, conjurors have been able to broadcast their stage shows to the nation (and further afield), resulting in an increasing number of people wanting to perform tricks too.

The Wellcome Collection displays seven examples of “do-it-yourself” magic sets through the ages, beginning as far back as 1843 with Box of Tricks. Magicians have earnt money by producing their own boxes of magic tricks to sell to consumers. Ernest Sewell (1889-1965), who was often in great demand to perform in front of the Royal Family, was one of the first entertainers to introduce conjuring to British children in the late 1920s. In the 1950s, boxes were produced under the title Maskelyne’s Mysteries, hoping the reference to the long-dead magician would garner sales. The magician and mentalist David Berglas (b.1926), David Nixon (1919-1978) and the late Paul Daniels (1938-2016) also jumped on the bandwagon, selling magic box sets at various points in their career. Most recently (2015) Steven Frayne (b.1982), better known by his stage name Dynamo, has released his own Magic Kit. Most of these boxes include a pack of cards, rope, plastic objects and a magic wand.

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Fez belonging to Tommy Cooper

Performing in front of a large crowd is a much harder feat than doing a few tricks in the living room at family parties. Thomas Frederick “Tommy” Cooper (1921-84), the fez-wearing British prop comedian and member of the Magic Circle, knew the importance of engaging the entire audience’s attention in order to make a trick work. Tommy Cooper’s acts relied on non-stop chatter and comedy to relax the audience; whilst the audience was concentrating on what he was saying or laughing at his jokes, he would make his sleight-of-hand move. Tommy was also known for deliberately botching tricks and whilst the audience was laughing perform the real trick, much to their amazement. This is known as a “sucker trick”, where the audience is led to believe they know how the trick is done, only to be proved wrong.

Unfortunately, Tommy Cooper’s reputation meant that when he collapsed on stage during Live from Her Majesty’s variety show, the audience and backstage assistants thought it was part of his act. Tommy Cooper had suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead on arrival at Westminster Hospital. It is unlikely Tommy could have been saved if his collapse had been realised sooner – the heart defibrillator that would have saved his life arrived thirty years too late.

The final part of the exhibition moves on to mentalism. A mentalist is a magician who performs mind reading and mind control amongst other psychological stunts. Similarly to the Victorian mystics, some mentalists claim to have real powers, however, others rely on being able to read other people’s body language, understanding the human mind and performing illusions. Often, these sorts of acts create the impression that members of the audience also have psychic potential and, even though this cannot possibly be true, it is very easy to be seduced by this deception.

Recent psychological studies suggest that the human mind can be tricked into believing false explanations even though it is clear that the performer is a conjurer. Mentalist performances are less flamboyant than the typical magic shows of the 20th century. It requires concentration, often silent, to allow the mentalist to read the behaviour of their audience, which enables them to create powerful illusions.

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Derren Brown Mind Reader, 2007

Whilst researchers were keen to expose the ruses of Victorian mystics, psychologists are less concerned about how the mentalist performs the act but rather the ethical boundaries of such a deception. Derren Brown (b.1971), the English mentalist and illusionist who has produced several award-winning shows, openly admits that he has no supernatural abilities. He connects his success to the ability to exploit his audience’s psychological traits.

In 2016, Derren Brown’s television series The Push demonstrated how easy it can be to manipulate another person. The show explored whether it was possible to psychologically coerce someone into justifying the killing of another human being. It explored human desire to please and obey, even when faced with actions that are morally wrong.

The exhibition explores the performance techniques of other mentalists, including The Amazing Dunninger, Raymond the Enchantress and Alexander “The Man Who Knows All”.

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Telepatha Cards

Generally, the claims that some performers have psychic powers has been rejected by audiences and science alike. Nonetheless, it continues to be the basis of a lot of contemporary magic shows. In the 1930s, the founder of parapsychology Joseph Banks Rhine (1895-1980) coined the term Extrasensory perception (ESP) to describe psychic abilities such as clairvoyance and telepathy. Initially a serious form of research with the potential for military use, the tools used in laboratories became popular with the general public after they were released in the form of board games. These games claimed to reveal hidden ESP powers in its players.

One of these so-called games was called Telepatha Cards, designed by the well-known Harry Price. One participant would select a card from a shuffled pack and attempt to transmit the symbol shown through the power of thought to a second participant who would then guess the card.

The final method of “magic” explored in the exhibition is the power of suggestion. Whilst this may sound like harmless fun, an experiment at McGill University in Canada revealed the dangers of misleading participants. In 2016, psychologists tricked a handful of people into believing a brain scanner could both read and influence their thoughts. The results showed that participants felt they had less control over their decisions when the scanner was supposedly influencing their thoughts than when the machine was only reading their mind. In reality, however, the brain scanner was doing neither.

This experiment also revealed the potential dangers of using misinformation to make people compliant, suggestible and vulnerable. Psychologists are continuing to explore how this knowledge could potentially help to challenge negative thoughts and behaviour patterns.

What began as an exhibition about a form of entertainment, Smoke and Mirrors leaves visitors contemplating the unethical practices of contemporary magic. How far can magic go before it becomes a cruel scientific experiment and stops being an enjoyable, awe-inspiring performance? This leads to a deeper question, is the idea of free will – the ability to choose our own actions – merely an illusion?

Free admission to Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic is available at The Wellcome Collection until 15th September 2019. Live performances in the gallery take place throughout the week. Performance times are listed on the website.

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Staging Magic

Magic, or the art of appearing to perform supernatural feats, has been popular throughout the world since the 16th century. People have been and continue to be fascinated by illusions, entertained by rabbits appearing out of hats and mystified by seemingly impossible acts. This year (2019), the Senate House Library in London has staged an exhibition containing over 60 magical stories that focus on legerdemain (sleight-of-hand) and stage illusions from the past four centuries. Staging Magic: The Story Behind the Illusion, uses books, manuscripts and other items once belonging to the Harry Price Library of Magical Literature to piece together the history of one of the oldest performing arts in the world.

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Studio Portrait of Harry Price

Although not all made it into the exhibition, the Harry Price Library contains over 13,000 items dating from the 15th century until the present related to magic, witchcraft, parapsychology, the occult and other similar subjects. This huge collection was bequeathed to the University of London after the death of its owner, Harry Price (1881-1948), which has been useful for research into “rare, old and curious works on magic, witchcraft, legerdemain, charlatanism, and the occult sciences.”

Harry Price, born in London, was only a young boy when he first became fascinated with magic. At a travelling magic show, Price came across the Great Sequah, a man who he later claimed was “entirely responsible for shaping much of my life’s work”. As a young boy with a toothache, Price was fascinated when the Great Sequah “extracted” his tooth and proceeded to perform a series of other magical wonders. Naturally, Price demanded to know how the tricks were accomplished, for instance, how could an empty hat suddenly contain two doves?

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Modern Magic

Due to his obsessive need to know how the Great Sequah performed such feats, Price was eventually given a copy of Professor Hoffmann’s Modern Magic (1874) in an attempt to satisfy his curiosity. Instead, this book was the small spark that fueled his passion for magic, psychical phenomena and the occult, culminating in an enormous collection of books, some of which can be seen on display today.

Angelo John Lewis (1839-1919) was an English lawyer and professor who went on to become the leading writer about magic of his time under the moniker Professor Louis Hoffmann. Modern Magic, published in 1874, was the first ever encyclopedia of performance magic. The first edition of 2000 copies sold out in seven weeks due to its popularity. Eventually, 15 editions of the book were published by the end of the 19th century and, being the first in a tetralogy, was soon followed by the titles More Magic (1890), Later Magic (1903) and Latest Magic (1918).

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As well as reporting on past and present magicians, Modern Magic became a favourite amongst aspiring conjurors, including Price who became an expert in sleight-of-hand and joined the Magic Circle in 1922. The British organisation was founded in 1905 after 23 amateur magicians met at Pinoli’s Restaurant in Soho, and was dedicated to promoting and advancing the art of magic.

In order to join the Circle, applicants had to qualify through either a performance exam or a written thesis about a branch of magic. Only then could they be designated a Member of the Magic Circle (M.M.C.). Further distinctions were later formed, for instance, Member of The Inner Magic Circle (M.I.M.C), which was limited to a select 300 members.

Although the Magic Circle aimed to promote magic, members had to give their word that they would not disclose any of their magic secrets to the public. The society’s motto indocilis privata loqui, meaning “not apt to disclose secrets” (lit. “incapable [of] speaking [of] private [things]”) emphasises this rule.

Being a magician, however, was not Harry Price’s aim in life. Instead, he would become famous for investigating mediums, hauntings and other supernatural phenomena, exposing numerous fakeries. His most famous investigation took place at Borley Rectory, which was purportedly haunted, its first paranormal event taking place in 1863. Price and a team of 48 “official observers” spent long periods of time at the rectory reporting on any paranormal activity. During this time, a planchette séance took place and two spirits, one who claimed to have been murdered on the site, were supposedly contacted. Six years later, Price discovered the bones of a woman buried in the cellar of the old house. Unfortunately, after his death, Price was accused of faking the phenomena.

As well as collecting books, Harry Price was a keen cinematographer and often filmed his experiments in phenomena. In 1935, the National Film Library compiled a few of these demonstrations and investigations to create a short film. The Senate House Library plays three examples on a loop as part of the exhibition. The first, known as the Indian Rope trick, was a cause célèbre at the time, involving a boy climbing a rigid rope that had once been limp. The performer Karachi, real name Arthur Claude Darby, was filmed proving the rope’s flexibility before making it stand upright, allowing his son to climb it several feet into the air.

Another experiment involved walking on fire, which Kuda Bux (born Khudah Bukhsh, 1905-81) was filmed doing twice without burning his feet. The twelve-foot long pit of burning hot coals measured a temperature of 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit (1,400 degrees Celsius), which is hot enough to burn steel. Price thought the trick was performed by stepping on “safe spots”, however, a later suggestion claimed that because coal cools rapidly, it would be possible to walk over them quickly without being burnt. Regardless as to the veracity of this statement, when a spectator tried to walk across the coals shortly after Kuda Bux, he severely burnt his feet.

Also in the film, Price debunked a ritual found in a 15th century “High German Black Book.” The ritual claimed that by carefully following the instructions, a goat would be transformed into a man. In front of a crowd, Price performed this ritual but, of course, the goat remained a goat.

Despite the Magic Circle endeavouring to keep their secrets, magical revelations had already been shared with the world. The earliest book in Price’s collection is The Discoverie of Magic by Reginald Scot (1538-99), which was published in 1584. Scot, a member of the English Parliament, wrote the book in order to dismiss the myths about witchcraft. At the time, the majority of the population held beliefs about the supernatural, however, Scot wished to propose a more rational approach. In order to convince his readers, he included highly detailed sections on legerdemain and “the art of iuggling”, which he explained made things appear to be magic but were rather very clever illusions.

At the time, The Discoverie of Magic was a risky book to publish. England was still struggling with the effects of the Reformation, and there was a strong divide between Catholics and Protestants. Scot was a Reformed Protestant, also called Calvinism, and stated in his book that “it is neither a witch, nor devil, but glorious God that maketh the thunder…God maketh the blustering tempests and whirlwinds…”. Catholics held strong beliefs in the power of witches, and later, King James I (1566-1625) condemned the book out of fear that it would stop people from staging witch hunts – a purge that had once caused mass hysteria.

Nonetheless, Scot’s Discoverie of Witchcraft went on to inspire many people and countless new books were published over the coming centuries. The Whole Art of Legerdemain or Hocus Pocus in Perfection published in 1727, borrowed a lot of its content from Scot. The author, Henry Dean, described a number of different tricks, including magic lanterns, producing eggs and hens from an empty bag and turning water into wine. These were accompanied by woodcut illustrations that helped to further explain the tricks.

Broadsheet newspapers, which could be produced much more cheaply than books, began to appear as forms of mass entertainment. Topics, such as legerdemain, were suddenly available to a much wider audience. One example shown in the exhibition promised to give concise instructions on how to perform acts involving cups and balls, fire-eating and walking on hot iron bars.

Although Harry Price’s books imply that the popularity of magic and illusion began in England, the craze quickly spread across the continent. Price owned copies of books in German (Hocus Pocus: Die Taschenspielerkunst Leicht zu Lernen, 1730), Spanish (Engaños a Ojos Vistas y Diversion de Trabajos Mundanos Fundala en Lícitos Juegos de Manos, 1733), and French (Aracana Mirabilia, ou, Magie Blanche et Tours de Physique & d’Excamotage, 1824).

In the 19th century, magicians and conjurors began adopting Chinese, Japanese and Indian styles of dress and sets in order to make their performances look more mystical. Later, towards the end of the century, Western performance magic spread to Asia, was adapted slightly, and published in books such as Mo Shu Ta Kuan (The Devils Art From Top to Bottom) in 1916.

The fascination with magic tricks was still strong in the 20th century. During the First World War, Charles Folkard (1878-1963), a children’s book illustrator who had a brief career as a professional magician, published a couple of pamphlets under the pseudonym Draklof. Tricks for the Trenches and Wards (1915) was one of the titles, which Draklof wrote with the intention of providing some entertainment to British soldiers. The tricks involved objects that could be found while sitting in trenches, such as matches and coins, and could be easily mastered by those convalescing in hospitals.

As with any increasingly prevalent topic in popular culture, magic was not immune to satire. In 1722, the Anglo-Irish author who went on to write Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) mocked the illusions and language of magic by writing about impossible feats in his pamphlet The Wonder of all the Wonders that Ever the World Wonder’d at (1722). He warned his subscribers to not be taken in by the claims from magicians that would most probably end in disappointment.

By the mid-19th century, magic acts had become successful forms of theatrical entertainment. The period was considered to be magic’s golden age and one performer stood out amongst them all. Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805-71) was a French magician who combined sleight-of-hand with technical innovations and is now regarded as the father of the modern style of conjuring.

Robert-Houdin became a magician almost by accident. Intending on becoming a watchmaker, he had ordered a couple of books on the topic, however, they got mixed up during delivery and Robert-Houdin – then Jean-Eugène Robert – ended up with a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements. Rather than returning them, Robert-Houdin curiously began reading and was soon hooked, practising the rudiments of magic at all hours of the day.

Most of what is known about Robert-Houdin’s life comes from his memoirs published in 1859, of which Harry Price owned a copy. Originally published in French as Confidences d’un Prestigitateur (1858), Robert-Houdin describes the many events in his life that led him to become one of the greatest magicians to date. He writes about his introduction to magic and illusion and some of his greatest achievements, for instance, convincing people in Algeria that French magic was superior to their local mystics. There is some suspicion, however, that many of his stories have been embellished or, perhaps, made up in parts.

Another of Robert-Houdin’s books that Price owned was his posthumously published Magie et Physique Amusante (1877), a sequel to Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie. Both books explain and offer explanations to some of the most famous stage illusions of the time. Not only did he include his own Magic Portfolio, but Robert-Houdin also revealed the secrets of other magicians, illusionists and spiritualists.

One of Robert-Houdin’s famous illusions was named The Ethereal Suspension in which he convinced his audience that the pungent liquid ether could cause a person to become as light as a balloon.

Robert-Houdin inspired many people, none more greatly than Erik Weisz (1874-1926), more commonly known as Harry Houdini. With a stage name inspired by his idol, the Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer quickly became known for his incredible escape acts. He first became noticed after challenging police officers to keep him locked up, yet no matter how hard they tried, he always managed to escape. Eventually, his repertoire included being tied up with heavy chains, hanging from skyscrapers, placed in a straitjacket underwater and being buried alive – from all of which he escaped.

Like Harry Price, Houdini was a keen collector of books about magic. Many titles feature and were discussed in their letters of correspondence. In 1921, Houdini sent a portrait of himself to Price signed “To my friend Harry Price, best wishes, Houdini”.

In 1908, Houdini published The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin after discovering that there was not enough evidence about the stories his idol had written about in his autobiography. Initially, Houdini was writing a book about the history of magic, however, it evolved into an exposé of his former hero’s potential dishonesty.

At the age of 52, Harry Houdini unexpectedly died from peritonitis, caused by a ruptured appendix. Despite being unwell, Houdini had continued performing, thus making his condition worse. As a result of his early death, many of his secrets about magic and escapology were taken to the grave. Nevertheless, the magician and author Walter B. Gibson (1897-1985) managed to, with the help of Houdini’s wife Wilhelmina “Bess” (1876-1943), decipher some of Houdini’s notebooks in order to put together a biography: Houdini’s Magic (1932).

Amongst Harry Price’s impressive collection are a number of books aimed at teaching the art of conjuring. The subject of magic was as popular for amateurs and hobbyists as it was professionals. Manuals for beginners were in great demand, hence the number of instruction books Price owned. These types of publications began as far back as 1722 with Henry Dean’s Hocus Pocus that offered to teach “any person that is desirous to learn any part of this art.” Ever since then, books of this genre have continued to flourish.

Aimed at children, The Art of Conjuring from the late 18th century, taught simple tricks involving eggs, cards and coins, whereas, Harlan Tarbell’s (1890-1960) System of Magic provided over 60 lessons for those who were more serious about learning the elements of magic. Lessons in Conjuring (1922) by David Devant (1868-1941) emphasised the importance of knowing how to perform a trick well. Although knowing how to do the trick was, of course, necessary, the success lay in how it was presented.

Ellis Stanyon’s (1870-1951) Conjuring for Amateurs (1897) and Alexander the Magician (Claude Alexander Conlin, 1880-1954)’s The Magic Show Book were written for true beginners, the latter being aimed at 10 to 14-year-olds. With books such as these, anyone could learn a trick or two to impress their friends and family. Stanyon maintained that practising magic as a hobby was “a wholesome and moral one”, but more importantly, these books aimed to amuse the public.

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With so many books on display, it is hard to take everything in at the Senate House Library’s exhibition. Fortunately, visitors are provided with a written guide that contains all the information about Harry Price’s collection, the history of magic and each individual item.

Seeing the books and items in display cabinets does not fully explain the story behind magic and illusions, however, there is so much history hidden within them.

The art of illusion has come on a long journey and, through one man’s book collecting hobby, its development is there for all to see.

Staging Magic is free and open to the public. Tickets are available on-site at the Library membership desk on the 4th floor of Senate House.

Previous exhibitions include Reformation: Shattered World, New Beginnings.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic

“There was a lot more to magic, as Harry quickly found out, than waving your wand and saying a few funny words” – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

On 26th June 1997, J. K. Rowling published her first book in what turned out to be a highly successful, worldwide phenomenon. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was only the beginning of an extraordinary journey that has affected the hearts of millions of people and changed children’s literature forever. With seven books in the original series, it has become a multimedia marvel.

In honour of the 20th anniversary, a magical exhibition has been put together, combining a vast amount of detail from the Harry Potter series, with examples of “magic” from the real world.

What better place to host the exhibition than the British Library with its enormous collection of rare and ancient books. Being located a stone’s throw away from King’s Cross Station, which fans will know is where the famous Hogwarts Express sets off from, is an added bonus.

Centred around the Hogwarts curriculum, the exhibition takes a look at the various forms of magic that have been experimented with throughout history, evidenced with examples of literature and ancient objects.

Expertly designed to look like settings from the Harry Potter world, references to scenes from the books are interspersed with the collection, creating a magical and exciting atmosphere. Even before entering, the dangling winged keys above the heads of those queuing for their timed entry, hint of the adventure inside.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic also contains a history of the franchise with details provided by J. K. Rowling to explain the development of her ideas. From a shaky beginning to the most popular fantasy fiction, Harry Potter has been on a remarkable journey.

It is hard to imagine a world without Harry Potter, particularly for people, like myself, who were only six years old in 1997, however, J. K. Rowling initially struggled to find a publisher. Several had already rejected the manuscript before Rowling sent it to Bloomsbury, yet, even at this stage, it was not certain whether the staff would agree to publish Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It took the strong opinion of one young person to convince the team to approve the proposal.

The founder of Bloomsbury, Nigel Newton, took the manuscript home and gave it to his daughter Alice. Who better to judge the merits of a children’s book than an eight-year-old reader? Her response set the publication in progress:

“The excitement in this book made me feel warm inside. I think it is possibly one of the best books an 8/9 year old could read!” – Alice Newton, aged eight.

The original print run was small – 500 copies – suggesting the publishers had little hope that Harry Potter would be a success. However, the interest of a film director helped to seal its fate. Steve Kloves came across the title within a dozen synopses for potential films. Intrigued by the logline, “A young boy goes to wizard’s school,” he sought out the book and was hooked immediately.

The film introduced many more people to the Harry Potter books and they were soon flying off the shelves. Today, over 450 million copies have been sold and the story has been translated into 80 different languages. It has been the most successful venture in children’s publishing.

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The two parts are designed to be watched in one day or on two consecutive nights

Success continued with the publication of companion books, such as The Tales of Beedle the Bard in 2008, and Fantastic Beasts in 2001. The latter inspired the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016), and there has also been a stage production titled Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016).

 

Displayed throughout the exhibition are examples of J. K. Rowling’s preliminary thoughts and work. These include typewritten first drafts, handwritten notes, sketches of Hogwarts and characters, and detailed plans.

More recently, the first three books in the Harry Potter series have been republished in a large, hardback, illustrated format. Jim Kay, the illustrator, has produced amazing drawings of the characters and settings. These are not influenced by the films starring Daniel Radcliffe, making them unique and original. Many of these are also featured in the exhibition.

Potions

The first subject in the Hogwarts curriculum to appear on the journey around the exhibition is Potions, taught for the majority of Harry’s time at the school by the nefarious Professor Snape. People have been making potions for hundreds of years, believing they can cure illnesses and other impossible things. This is evidenced by Jacob Meydenbach’s book Ortus Sanitatis, owned by the British Library, which contains information and recipes for hundreds of potions.

Visitors have the opportunity to try their hand at creating a couple of the potions that feature in the Harry Potter books. An interactive screen instructs the player to insert various ingredients into a digital cauldron. Get it right and a bottled potion appears, however, making a mistake may result in an explosion!

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Ivory pharmacy sign in the shape of a unicorn’s head

In the 18th century, apothecaries sold potions or medicines made from natural ingredients for a variety of ailments. These establishments were recognised by wooden and ivory signs in the shape of a unicorn. The horn, however, was the tusk of a narwhal rather than a real unicorn horn, which was, obviously, harder to come by!

Although the Harry Potter series is a fictional creation, J. K. Rowling based a lot on truth and history. It is impressive to note the extent to which she researched, even some of the things she invented are based on existing ideas. The philosopher’s stone referenced in the title of the first book was believed to make its owner immortal. In the 15th century, George Ripley (1415-90), an alchemist, produced an illustrated scroll with instructions about how to make a philosopher’s stone. The manuscript, which has rarely been unrolled due to its size, sits in an extremely long display case for everyone to see.

The characters in Harry Potter are invented by the author, however, one name that features on a required book for the potions class is Nicolas Flamel, who did exist. A replica of his 15th-century tombstone sits to one side of the Ripley Scroll.

Herbology

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Culpeper’s English physician and complete herbal…1789

A double archway leads from the Potions section to the Herbology area. This was a core subject at Hogwarts but was also taught in the real world. Herbology is essentially the study of plants and their uses. For years, people relied on this knowledge to create ointments and medicines, even potions. The British Library has a copy of a book called Culpeper’s English Physician; and Complete Herbal which was first published in 1652. Nicholas Culpeper (1616-54) was an unlicensed apothecary who wanted herbal knowledge available to everyone, hence why it was written in English rather than the traditional Latin. J.K. Rowling often consulted this book when researching for Harry Potter.

Jim Kay’s illustrations demonstrate the fictional plants that feature in the novels, but, as always, these are also based on real life. One plant is the mandrake, which does exist in real life, however, the Harry Potter ones have magical qualities; for example, they scream. There are also illustrations to compare the traditional idea of gnomes (red hat, rosy cheeks) with J. K. Rowling’s version (ugly and looks like a potato).

Charms

The curators of the Harry Potter exhibition have gone to great lengths to bring the magic of Hogwarts to life, utilising lighting effects and digital technology. To exemplify the power of charms, a flying snitch (a golden ball with wings) is seen flying across the walls. A disembodied voice chants magic spells such as “Wingardium Leviosa” and “Alohomora” which young wizards are taught at school.

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Liber Medicinalis

Magic words have also been used in real life, although not in quite the same way. Magicians and children’s entertainers still shout “Open Sesame” or “Abracadabra” when reaching the pinnacle of their act, however, “Abracadabra” dates back to the 13th century. The word was believed to have healing powers and patients were instructed to write out the word on eleven lines, leaving out one character each time, to create a triangular shape, which would then be cut out and worn around the neck like an amulet.

In the Harry Potter books, charms are more than waving a magic wand and saying a strange word. Objects can be charmed to move (e.g. the golden snitch and broomsticks), disappear, turn into something else, and so forth. In an empty glass cabinet supposedly hangs Harry’s invisibility cloak, a cloak that has been charmed to make the wearer disappear from sight. However, being an invisibility cloak, no one can see it!

Astronomy

Entering the Astronomy section is like stepping into a pretend observatory. Tiny white lights decorate the dark ceiling making it look like the night sky. Astronomy is one of the oldest sciences in existence, and although it does not involve magic, it is still an important subject in the wizarding world. Scientists have studied the night sky, determining the position of planets and stars, and discovering the secrets of the universe.

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A section of the Dunhuang Star Chart

Evidence of astronomy dates back thousands of years, however, the oldest tangible evidence to be discovered so far is a manuscript produced in China around 700AD. The Dunhuang star chart is two metres long and contains a record of the movements of the stars visible in the Northern Hemisphere. Civilisations used to base important decisions on the position of stars, however, this crosses over into astrology.

When writing Harry Potter, Rowling looked to the starry skies for names for many of her characters. An interactive screen allows visitors to locate certain stars in the sky that have been utilised in the series. Examples are Andromeda Tonks, Bellatrix Lestrange and Remus Lupin.

Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, is another character named after the night sky. Sirius is the brightest star that can be seen from Earth and lies within the constellation Canis Major. The star is also known as the Dog Star, which makes it an apt name for the Animagus; Sirius Black can turn himself into a large black dog.

Divination

Divination is the art of predicting the future and is often ridiculed by those who do not believe in this elusive craft; it is no different with the staff and students at Hogwarts. The teacher, Professor Sybill Trelawney, is often mocked and believed to be a fake, however, some of her prophecies prove to not only be true but are vital to the storyline.

Similarly to the methods taught at Hogwarts, predicting the future can be attempted in many different ways. The books and items displayed by the British Library give examples of techniques used across the world. Usually, when picturing a fortune teller, they are seated at a round table with a crystal ball on top. A couple of these are exhibited, along with a fake, digitally powered version that everyone is welcome to play with.

Another common technique of fortune tellers is tarot card reading or cartomancy. The exhibition contains the oldest version of the pack of 52 cards that were produced by a so-called specialist, John Lenthall (1683-1762), in the 18th century. Each card has a different meaning and can predict events in an individual’s future. An interactive table allows people to place their hands in position and receive their own fortune telling.

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John Lenthall’s Fortune-Telling Cards, English

Defence Against the Dark Arts

A compulsory subject at Hogwarts, Defence Against the Dark Arts teaches students how to defend themselves against dark creatures and curses. This plays a vital role in Harry’s story as he fights the Dark Lord as well as other evil characters. However, there is a rumour that the position as teacher of Defence Against the Dark Arts is cursed, especially as they never last longer than a year.

Throughout history, societies have believed in and attempted to protect themselves from evil beings. Sometimes talismans or amulets are worn to protect individuals from harm. Interestingly, the symbol of a snake has also been used for defence purposes, but, on the other hand, some cultures view them as evil.

In the Harry Potter series, snakes are mostly associated with evil. Voldemort, the Dark Lord, has a pet snake who measures at least twelve foot long. For Voldemort, his pet is a form of protection, but for Harry, it represents evil.

Care of Magical Creatures

The final subject is Care of Magical Creatures that is initially taught by the half-giant Rubeus Hagrid. Students are taught about a whole range of creatures: what they eat, their natural habitats, which are safe and which are dangerous, and so on. Rowling has used pre-existing creatures from mythology and folklore but adapted them to fit in with the storyline. Some of these include unicorns, dragons, phoenixes and hippogriffs.

Although, nowadays, magical creatures are believed to be a myth, plenty of books have been published on the topic. These books are known as bestiaries and contain detailed information about each curious beast.

Other magical creatures that heavily feature in Harry Potter are ghosts. The Hogwarts castle is full of them and they often interact with the students. Another are owls, which may not register as magical creatures in the real world. In J. K. Rowling’s fictional world, the witches and wizards do not use postmen, instead, they entrust their letters and parcels to an owl to deliver them straight to the recipient.

Jim Kay has produced some wonderful illustrations of the many creatures in the books, some of which can be seen in this section of the exhibition.

Here the exhibition comes to an end. Not only does everyone know more about the famous Wizarding World, they have a greater knowledge about magic in general. Combining Harry Potter and real-life examples of witchcraft and wizardry make the journey through the exhibition extra interesting and inciteful. It is truly eye-opening to discover the connections between the fictional books and “real” world.

J. K. Rowling is a truly admirable author who deserves all the recognition she has received. Harry Potter will never be forgotten and has a promising future with spin-offs, illustrated versions of books, and new forms of merchandise constantly in production.

It is hard to fault Harry Potter: A History of Magic, the British Library has done an exceptional job at sourcing and curating the exhibition. It is set out in a logical format and is easy to navigate. The only downside, if it can be called one, is that it is so popular! Tickets sell out in advance every day, meaning the exhibition gets very crowded. In an attempt to control the crowds, the Library issues timed tickets with a half hour window in which to enter. However, the eager Harry Potter fans turn up at the beginning of their slot resulting in a multitude of people entering at once. The first few sections are particularly difficult to manoeuvre around as everyone fights to see the artworks, books and information.

Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open until 28th February, so there is still time to go and see the sensational exhibition – if there are any tickets left! Tickets can only be purchased online and cost £16 (£8 for under 17s). There is also an exhibition shop full of Harry Potter merchandise. Unfortunately, this is a bit pricey, but serious fans will be willing to pay the price.

Displays inspired by the Harry Potter: A History of Magic exhibition are open in 20 public libraries across the UK as part of the Living Knowledge Network.