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Annals of Conjuring by Sidney W. Clarke

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii November, 2001)


"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," according to George Santayana, but it often seems to me that those who cannot remember magic's past simply reinvent and then claim it. Given the inherent limitations of magic—not the least of which being its dependency upon a mere six fundamental types of effects (according to Sam Sharpe)—magicians are intimately tied to our past, like it or not, and it would thus appear sensible for as to maintain a working knowledge of the history of our art.

One therefore needn't be a history fanatic in order to wish to have a few good reference texts on the shelf, and indeed in magic there aren't more than few essentials from which to choose. In his preface to this new edition of The Annals of Conjuring, collaborative editor and noted historian of conjuring Edwin Dawes declares that the book "remains the most important single source of information for the student of magic history," and I suspect most history enthusiasts would be loathe the argue the point.

There seems little doubt that this new edition of Sidney Clarke's venerable Annals of Conjuring is a required resource that belongs on the shelf of every magician, no matter the specifics of his or her special interest. Roberto Giobbi, in Volume 4 of Card College, offered that "He who knows nothing about the history of his art and his species is like a tree without roots—a thing incapable of withstanding the slightest storm." And this hefty book will certainly withstand more than the winds of change that breeze incessantly through the dealer's shelves.

The Annals is a beloved book among magic historians, and to them its story is well known. First published serially in the British journal The Magic Wand between 1924 and 1928, Clarke's detailed historical research was all but unprecedented, and the extent to which he attempted to pull together that which was known into a single work was certainly unmatched. The access to information that magicians possess today, with current reprints of Clever and Pleasant Inventions by Prevost, Hams Pocus Jr., or Ady's Candle in the Dark and other like antiquarian works, is a recent phenomenon; what's more, the avail-ability of such limited editions rapidly diminishes, while the average practitioner may not be inclined to invest the money or the time and effort required to pore through relatively ancient texts. In place of such pursuits, Clarke's work stands as an effective and highly accessible general guide to the early recorded knowledge of conjuring lore.

Professor Dawes, who in 1983 wrote a biography of Clarke entitled The Banister in the Circle, borrows liberally from his own work (including the title) to provide a new 22-page biographical chapter. The "Circle" here refers to The Magic Circle, Britain's famed conjuring society, with which Clarke—a lawyer, lecturer, and author on subjects other than conjuring history—had a long relationship. Clarke was at work on The Annals by 1916, when George Johnson, editor of the journal The Magic Wand from 1914 until 1945 first made mention of Clarke's plans to produce a complete history (Clarke had preceded Johnson as The Wand's editor). The manuscript began to be serialized in The Magic Wand in March of 1924 (and ran through December of 1928), likely because of a distinct lack of response to offers of advance sales of the book that appeared in the magazine in 1919 and 1920. Thankfully, Johnson was a supporter of the project even if readers were not! Indeed, the material was only published in complete form in one of the rarest volumes in all of magic, in what essentially amounted to an edition of four—that's right, four signed and numbered copies, along with a miniscule quantity of non-numbered, non-paginated copies—an interesting account of which is included here by Prof. Dawes.

It would not be until 1983 when an actual bound reprint of The Annals was generally produced by Magico, some copies of which may still be available until then, many went to great length, I. track down copies of The Magic Wand originals. But this new edition is the on, that every lover of the art—collector, performer, reader, theorist, amateur, professional, inventor, builder—will insist on putting on the shelf, and a convenient one at that, the better to have it readily at hand for the satisfaction of a passing curiosity or the start of an in-depth research project. Assembled and annotated by Todd Karr (who recently produced Sharpe's Neo-Magic Artistry [reviewed in November 2000 Genii]) along with Eddie Dawes, and "in association with" Bob Read, historian and expert on magic-related antiquarian graphics (with a special interest in images of the Cups and Balls), these men have done what all lovers of Clarke's esteemed work have long yearned for: an annotated Annals.

Clarke was a thorough researcher, but for reasons variously recounted or speculated upon in Professor Dawes's biographical chapter—most likely the limitations of the magazine format in which the work was first published, along with commercial considerations—he never published his sources, which have remained a subject of conversation and conjecture ever since. It remained for Masts. Karr, Dawes, and Read, with the help of others (including some of the first published work of the research of Bill Kalush, about which he gave an oral presentation at the Collectors' convention last year in Baltimore), to track down sources, along with newly discovered and related material, to both verify Clarke's work as well as expand upon it. In doing so they have done a remarkable service to present and future historians of magic.

In this more than 600-page volume, the now 548 annotations (incorporating Clarke's original footnotes as well) comprise almost 60 pages. Undoubtedly the majority of these notes now provide what amounted to Clarke's own undocumented source material, although to what degree this is absolutely true we will never know unless Clarke's original notes ever turn up, which appears unlikely (as mentioned in passing by Prof. Dawes). In some cases we can be all but certain that these references not only offer substantiation and further guidance for researchers, but indeed served as Clarke's own sources; in other cases, we can only guess, and there is all manner of variation between and beyond. Clarke notes one mention by diarist Sam Pepys of seeing conjurors perform, but Mr. Karr, in a footnote, details not only a second such allusion, but also adds a reference to Pepys having purchased a reprinted edition of Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft.

This is delightful stuff, but even more exciting will be a new chapter, written by Bob Read and placed amid the "additional resources," about the work of "The Mysterious Arthur Watson," to whom the history of conjuring apparently owes a great debt—as did apparently Sidney Clarke—a fact only very recently discovered by Scottish magic historian Gordon Bruce. Mr. Read's piece is simultaneously humorous and riveting, and I leave to readers the pleasures of discovering more about Mr. Watson's publication of two apparently quite remarkable articles on conjuring in the journal, The Reliquary, in 1909. Did I mention that he is likely the first writer on subjects magical to ever mention the Beni Hassan tomb painting allegedly depicting the Cups and Balls?

This piece by Mr. Read is only the first entry in a body of new content totaling more than 100 pages that Mr. Karr has in fact appended in this volume, all of which concern early conjuring subjects of clear interest to Clarke. Mentalists may be particularly interested in the section of descriptions by Hippolytus, dating from the second century A.D.; one of the earliest known descriptions of methods, it includes work on reading sealed methods. There is a section of "Early English Records of Conjuring," between 1310 and 1642, drawn from "parish records, police reports, and various official books of payments to entertainers." A similar listing of "Early Italian Conjuring Works," primarily from the 15th and 16th centuries (and thereby pre-Scot's Discoverie), is provided by Hjalmar and Thierry Depaulis (and translated by Karr), who also provide a well-documented piece about the enigmatic 16th century magician, Scow, one of the earliest magicians we know of by name.

Bob Read contributes two more pieces, one listing "Entertainment in The Spectator," consisting of public notices, advertisements, letters, and the like from that early-1700s publication, followed by "Southwark Fair News Items" also from the early 18th century; the fair was depicted in the famous Hogarth engraving from Clarke (p. 118 of this edition), and this includes some listings of the most famous conjuror of that era, Isaac Fawkes. A complete listing of "Fawkes Notices," circa 1722 through 1731, is assembled in the next entry by Karr, Dawes, and Read. Mr. Karr then follows with a substantial new section of "Colonial American Magic," also drawn from 18th century newspapers; very little of this material has been previously collected. The sizeable penultimate section addresses "Magic in the Early Literature," much of which expands upon abbreviated quotations included in the original Annals. And these "additional resources" conclude with an ample section on the mysterious Charlier, including a substantial work by Herbert Pratt, which first appeared in the 1950s in The Midget Magician, a journal of which only some 50 copies are now known to exist; this is preceded by a four-page introduction by Todd Karr, and supplemented by the full text of a description of a dinner with Charlier that Pratt references but does not provide in detail.

All of this material seems to expand and update Clarke without unduly distorting his work or dragging it into territories it does not already naturally lean toward. This is of course a subjective issue, but nevertheless I think the choices are reasonable. Does it make more sense to add material that Clarke barely addressed if at all, or rather to further explore mysteries like the elusive Charlier, to whom Clarke originally devoted several pages?

As to those subjects that Clarke barely addressed, the most obvious point is to remember that he was writing more than 70 years ago, and thus The Annals are not a good source for 20th century subject matter. Prof. Dawes mentions the sometime complaint that Clarke's focus was unduly Anglo-centric; although the observation is to at least some extant undeniable, one must be careful to consider the causes. Yes, Clarke was British and writing in England, but he wrote from the sources he had available, and still did try to address other parts of the world, writing entire sections on "The Continental Conjurers" and the "Oriental Conjurers," and even commenting in the opening paragraph of the former segment that .. it is probable that the Continental conjurers surpassed the English in skill and inventiveness."

American magi may be more sensitive to this issue, but of course it should be pointed out that the American contribution to conjuring is substantially a 20th-century phenomenon. In his penultimate segment, "Conjurers of Yesterday and To-day (sic)" (and keep in mind that "today" meant the opening decades of the 20th century), the brief section on "America" includes segments on Harry Kellar and William Robinson (Chung Ling Soo), mentions in passing the likes of Downs, Lafayette, Leipzig, and Germain; elsewhere Clarke discusses (albeit somewhat dismissively) Alexander Herrmann, who achieved great success in the United States and in fact eventually became a citizen. Houdini, of course a contemporary of Clarke's, is cited periodically as a source for historical tidbits, but about whom less than a dozen lines of text are given over to; little could Clarke have anticipated the timeless icon Houdini would become after his death, which occurred while The Annals was still appearing.

And so, what we have here is simply the best single-volume compendium from early recorded history of conjuring through the 19th century. And what's more—it's now exquisitely illustrated. Drawing from a variety of sources, including his own collection and those of Bob Read, Eddie Dawes, Elaine Lund, Ken Klosterman, and others, Mr. Karr has supplemented the original 98 illustrations of The Annals with double that number of additional entries, a graphic array that adds immeasurably to the book's visual appeal and, ultimately, its meaning and usefulness. Numerous portraits, including stunning full-page images of Jean Eugéne Robert-Houdin and Karl Germain (per-haps to counter-balance the brevity of his entry?) complement the text, along with woodcuts, handbills, newspaper notices, title pages and frontispieces, programs, posters, and more, all serving to vastly improve the appearance beyond that of any previous version.

The text has been reset, paragraph breaks have been added to compensate for what were doubtless the pressures of limited magazine space in the original serialization, spelling errors and inconsistencies have been corrected (and carefully documented). The book is printed on satin-finish paper, and the full-color dust-jacket features a painting by contemporary artist Katlyn Breene (who also did the jacket for Neo-Magic Artistry) of Philippe, the successful 19th century French conjuror who, bridging the transition from the old to the new, was among the last of those who wore the wizard's robes and among the first to make the change to common evening dress. And finally, fabulously, a section of 18 color plates (in eight pages) have been added at the front of the book, including a portrait of none other than Reginald Scott, discovered by Harry Reeve. Fourteen of these color entries come from the increasingly famous collection of Bob Read, most of which depict the Cups and Balls and date within the 19th century, along with a color frontispiece of an oil painting by Ulysse Benard, circa 1850, depicting the Cups and Balk These pages are a remarkable start that will whet the palate of any enthusiast and doubtless create a few new ones in the process.

Clarke himself, in the concluding paragraphs of his introduction, wrote that he "welcome(d) instructive criticism and corrections." His errors are testimony to the living process that is the study of history—so active and ongoing, in fact, that Mr. Karr has managed to introduce two misspellings (as "Reeves") out of five references to Harry Reeve ... thus kindly leaving the opportunity for future editions to have some-thing to correct. More seriously, despite the extensive new additions concerning Guy Fawkes in this edition, a subject of great interest to all parties involved, past and present, Mr. Read has since unearthed new information even since the book went to the printer, and we will have to wait a bit longer to savor those new jewels.

While it would be an overstatement to name any single work as the definitive standard reference on the history of conjuring, it is not hyperbolic to propose that The Annals is in fact the closest thing we have; one would be hard-pressed to name so much as eight more titles worthy of contention. One does need to look elsewhere for coverage of the 20th century; one must seek alternate sources about the giants of small magic. Certainly a thrilling expansion of our historical resources has occurred in recent years, especially in the form of major biographies by Dawes, Caveney, et al. But in the realm of general reference a few monuments stand tall, not yet swept away by the blows of time, and when the dust storms of change clear from our view, Sidney Clarke and his masterwork continue to glitter in the skyline. Young or old, beginner or expert, if conjuring has touched your life then its annals assuredly belong on your shelf.

Annals of Conjuring • Sidney W. Clarke • 8" x 10" clothbound with dustjacket • 639 pages • 291 illustrations • The Miracle Factory