Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun

The idea of Victorian entertainments might initially conjure up parlour games of an improving sort, or an evening round the piano exhorting Maud to come into the garden.  The latest free exhibition at the British Library takes a more expansive look at the world of Victorian show business thanks to conjuror Harry Evans, aka the Great Evanion.

In 1895 Evans was on his uppers and was forced by necessity to sell his collection of posters, playbills, sheet music and other ephemera, some 6,000 items in all, to the British Museum for £20.  That was apparently the most the curators could spend on a single transaction without having to seek approval from the trustees, who would probably have turned their noses up at the offer.

British institutions are not particularly noted for having this sort of foresight, but Evans’s loss was a huge gain for our understanding and appreciation of popular entertainment in the late nineteenth century.  If not the greatest show on earth, the British Library has conjured up a wonderful little one to put us in the mood for the festive season.

The exhibition encompasses magic, circus acts, menageries, mesmerism, dioramas, waxworks, panto and more, together giving a splendid insight into the way our forebears spent their hard-earned leisure in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  There are five main sections, devoted to stars of varying kinds, and degrees of celebrity: John Nevil Maskelyne, Dan Leno, ‘Lord’ George Sanger (a distant relative of mine), Annie De Montford and the Great Evanion himself.  Why these five were selected is not made clear, presumably because there is enough available in the archives relevant to each to constitute a cohesive presentation.

Evanion is not very well known today, but it would have been impolite to omit him, considering he has largely made the exhibition possible.  He was a magician who after appearing in front of royalty (there is some dispute about their precise status) thereafter billed himself as the ‘Royal conjuror’.

Maskelyne was manager of the Egyptian Hall in Regent Street, ‘England’s Home of Mystery’, in partnership first with George Cooke and then David Devant.  Egyptian Hall Posters on display tilt at Theosophy in the form of Koot Hoomi and the Mahatmas, hinting that there was often a seriously sceptical intent behind Maskelyne’s magic.

De Montford, ‘the psychological star’, was originally a millworker but carved out a career as a mesmerist, an unusual occupation for a woman, situated on the blurred line between science and entertainment.  To indicate how popular mesmerism was, on display is the music for Harry Castling’s song How I Mesmerise ‘em, as sung by Charles Gardener.

Sanger was the purveyor of ‘something new under the sun, twice daily’, as both a travelling circus impresario and later at Astley’s Amphitheatre.  A copy of his 1908 autobiography is in one of the cases, and its title, Seventy Year a Showman, does not seem an exaggeration.  Next to it is a ‘memoir’ by one of his acts, Toby the learned pig, which I think it can be assumed was ghost-written.

Finally, tucked round the corner is a section devoted to George Wild Galvin, better known as Dan Leno, comic singer and versatile performer, including as a clog dancer and pantomime dame.  He was allegedly the funniest man on earth (in admittedly a fairly small field).

The star attraction of There Will Be Fun has to be the wonderful posters.  They conjure up the greasepaint and sawdust and are marvels of the printer’s art.  Designed to be disposable, it seems a miracle they have survived in such fine condition.

Bulking out the gems from the Great Evanion’s collection there are films, such as one from 1902 of Dan Leno’s family larking about in the garden, and early sound recordings.  Further objects have been loaned by the Magic Circle, including rather oddly the spend-a-penny toilet lock invented by Maskelyne.

As well as the archival material, there are new films of actors recreating the old routines, and supplementing the exhibition is a series of live performances in the library – probably mounted in the name of ‘access’ but all to the good if it focuses attention on the collection.  The curators have dressed the display in a gorgeous red circus-themed paper with evocative gold text to reinforce the Victorian atmosphere.

Performing was one way someone from humble origins, with talent and some luck, could carve a lucrative career in a society where opportunities for social mobility were limited.  Sadly though, a lot of the greats who dedicated their careers to entertaining our ancestors came to unfortunate ends.  Of those showcased here, Annie De Montfort died in 1882 at the age of 46; Dan Leno spent time in an asylum and died in 1904 aged 43; impoverished, Harry Evans died in 1905 in Lambeth infirmary of throat cancer; George Sanger was murdered with an axe in 1911.

However, their legacy lives on in this excellent little exhibition and for anybody dropping in to see it one thing is certain – there will be fun!  It runs until 12 March 2017.