Evanion the magician could produce a bowl of flames from beneath his coat. He also billed himself as achieving “laughable ventriloquial effects and necromantic feats,” and carried the title the “Royal conjuror” thanks to an 1866 performance for the Prince and Princess of Wales. He might have been one of the numerous 19th-century entertainers whose remarkable exploits became historical oddities, but his greatest trick was preserving the ephemeral past. He kept advertisements, ticket stubs, posters, programs, and scores that were ordinarily treated like trash, and built an archive of thousands of objects.
In 1895, when the London-born Henry Evans’s stage career as Evanion was over, and he and his fellow Victorian entertainers were already slipping into obscurity, the British Museum purchased some 6,000 of these items, which are now at the British Library. Other artifacts were acquired by escape artist Harry Houdini, and are now part of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. In in 1909, Houdini described his encounter with Evanion:
With some hesitancy of speech but the loving touch of a collector he opened his parcel. “I have brought you, sir, only a few of my treasures, sir, but if you will call – ”
I heard no more. I remember only raising my hands before my eyes, as if I had been dazzled by a sudden shower of diamonds. In his trembling hands lay priceless treasures for which I had sought in vain … In the presence of his collection I lost all track of time.
The British Library is showcasing its Evanion Collection materials in Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun. “I have selected the most colorful and significant items from the collection to outline the various popular Victorian entertainments featured in the exhibition, from magic shows, circus acts, hypnotism to music hall and pantomime,” Helen Peden, curator of There Will Be Fun, told Hyperallergic. In particular, the exhibition highlights five performers, including Evanion himself, magician John Nevil Maskelyne, circus showman George Sanger, hypnotist Annie De Montford, and pantomime star Dan Leno.
Advertisements for the “Greatest Performing Elephant in the World,” hot air balloon flights, levitation, mesmerism, and “modern witchery” mingle in a vibrant Victorian entertainment time capsule. Along one wall of the British Library, 36 posters are displayed.
“These are glorious examples of Victorian color printing, and I wanted to give visitors a rare opportunity to enjoy them,” Peden said. “These are all seldom seen pieces and most have not been displayed since they were produced in the 19th century. They also support an underlying theme of the exhibition — that today’s popular entertainments have been shaped by so many of the popular entertainments of the 19th century.”
One poster is for “Will, the Witch, and the Watch.” Peden explained it was “one of the most popular magic acts presented by the magicians Maskelyne and Cooke at London’s Egyptian Hall, and was presented as a magical playlet that ran for about 30 minutes.” The plot was set in 1799, in an English village jail, where an imprisoned sailor (Will) is allowed to escape by a witch, who also accidentally manifests as a magical gorilla. “‘Will, the Witch and the Watch’ told a story through magic and provided the inspiration for stage magicians to develop routines in a much more sophisticated and polished way,” Peden said.
The story is just one of the incredible spectacles promised by each advertisement, whether a wax-work museum that boasts its chamber of horrors is “made entirely of Wax. No sawdust bodies with wax heads and hands attached, as is the case in other exhibitions,” or an ominous “New Dark Seance & the Wonderful Skeleton!” that “should be seen by Everybody.” And now over a century later, these are often the only glimpses we have of these performers, albeit through the hype and hyperbole of show business advertising.
Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun continues at the British Library (96 Euston Road, London) through February 12, 2017.