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Illustration of magic trick with woman sitting on chair.

Theatrical Science, The Amazing Magicians and Magic-Illustrations of the 19th Century

Enchant, Inspire

An extravagantly beautiful and ominous book that helps us understand prestidigitation and the science of magic at the time of its invention.

Magic, Stage Illusions and Scientific Diversions, compiled and edited by Henry Ridgely Evans in 1897, occupies in a unique position within magic literature. Many books have told the story of natural magic and prestidigitation, but none of them has focused on stage magic to the extent this book has, and few have emphasized on the truth which lies behind those tricks, optical illusions, electricity and the ingenious applications of scientific principles in their theatrical expositions. Magic is, after all, an act of engineering.

The book has over 400 surreal illustrations, including some addressing photographic tricks. The first chapters render the very best works by 19th century illusionists such as Robert Houdini, Doctor Lynn and Professor Pepper, clearly explained and beautifully drawn. In the following chapters we see everything related to the “Ancient Magic” of Egyptian, Roman and Greek thaumaturgy, alongside illustrations of the first existing automats from around the world. ­­–– All of them seemingly wrapped in an enchantment that the magicians themselves and the illustrators who represented them must have felt (and made others feel) when producing their work. There is something inexplicably beautiful in the methods that were employed to produce theatrical science, something along the lines of a primal and pure enthusiasm to make the audience feel awestruck through imaginative techniques.

Towards the end of the book, the chapter about “chronophotography” is one of the most charming of all –– one which encourages us to forget modern technology and digital filters and practice the science of the first “magical” photomontages ever. It describes photography in movement (several decades before cinema) and the ways in which it was of utmost importance for the sages of the time. The introduction, written by Mr Henry Ridgely Evans, who also wrote Hours with the Ghosts and Nineteenth Century Witchcraft (which we should hunt as if for quartz), is an essential part of the piece. It contains a brief —but incredibly unabridged— history of magic from its beginnings until modern times, with special attention to unusual incidents that occurred to famous necromancers (necromancers meaning those who can invoke the dead to make them visible and tangible).

Mr Henry also contributed to chapters on shadows (“shadowgraphy”) and mental magic. Thus, this compendium, by invoking magic tricks, lets the magic shine through. Anybody who is remotely interested or close to the art magique should take a look at this rare marvel.

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