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Charles Bertram: The Court Conjurer by Edwin A. Dawes

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii July, 1997)


Charles Bertram was still an amateur magician making his living as a London wine merchant when he made his first appearance before royalty, performing for the Prince of Wales. Within about a year's time his wine business would fail and Bertram would turn to a second career as a professional conjuror, a career that would bring him before members of the Royal family no less than twenty more times before it was over. Hence the quite appropriate appellation bestowed upon this book and its subject, the Court Conjuror himself, Charles Bertram.

Bertram was the epitome of the court conjuror, but he was much more than that —he was, in the words of author Edwin Dawes, "the quintessential British Society Entertainer of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods." Although Bertram made a feature of the Vanishing Lady, e.g., the de Kolta Chair, and was the first to perform an authorized version in London at none other than Maskelyne & Cooke's (since de Kolta was tied up in Paris where his new trick was a sensation), his specialty was what we would mostly consider Parlor Magic today, namely magic that worked as well in the intimacy of turn- of-the-century drawing rooms as it did on small platforms, but was stretched beyond its limits when, late in Bertram's life, he occasionally found himself compelled to appear on a music hall stage. As with Max Malini (albeit a very different sort of character), this elegant magic—sleight of hand with cards, silks, finger rings, the Miser's Dream, the Linking Rings—took Bertram not only before royalty, but around the world, with repeated trips to Australia, India, and North America. But like Malini, it was the amalgam of Bertram's skill, appearance and genial personality that ultimately made Bertram the successful, consummate conjuror of his time.

Meanwhile, Edwin Dawes is the consummate conjuring historian and author, as well as the quintessence of British restraint, and as such we could not have a better match of author paired with subject. This volume is exquisitely researched, as Mr. Dawes attempts to track down every mystery and resolve every puzzle he faces in piecing together the story of Bertram's life. Sometimes the mystery remains unsolved, but Mr. Dawes is never coy about identifying his occasional frustrations, and the reader is all the more grateful for his many, sometimes amazing successes. Also, the inimitable Mr. Dawes comes up with entire chapters that you won't find in your average biography, such as a brief but revealing chapter, "Bertram On the Use of the Wand," and the remarkable concluding chapter, "Bertram and His Motor Car." The car, a 1903 Renault, is delightfully depicted on the rear of the handsome dustjacket, and the chapter makes for entertaining reading, thanks largely to its current owner, one Michael Bithell, who came upon Mr. Dawes in the course of the former's research into the automobile's history. This is the kind of delicious and serendipitous surprise that history buffs live for.

"[Bertram] enjoined me never to be without [the magic wand], and always to have it to hand.... he made very practical use of it in working the 'Coin and Envelopes' but in addition he held that it was of the greatest usefulness in many ways. For one thing it was an aid to deportment and he instanced that if one were giving a performance in a drawing-room it would be a serious breach of good manner to indicate a lady, from whom one wished assistance, by pointing at her with the finger, but if the pointing was done with the wand it was accepted as a graceful gesture."—Cooper on Bertram's use of the wand quoted in Charles Bertram: The Court Conjurer_ by Edwin A. Dawes

But if ancient automobiles aren't your speed then hunker down with, for example, chapter three, "Bertram and the Mysterious Charlier," ten of the most substantial pages ever written about the enigma who is known to most contemporary magi by little more than the one-handed shift that bears his name, and who had a profound influence on Bertram. This chapter will come as a revelation to many and even includes the program of a benefit performance that Bertram organized for Charlier in 1882, which includes the thrilling notice that between the two parts of Bertram's performance, "M. Charlier will give some marvelous variations with cards." And my, oh my, I'm sure he did at that Mysteries of all sorts abound concerning Bertram's life, and there is some irony in the fact that some of the most publicized aspects of his life are often the fuzziest when it comes to ascertaining the details. Bertram's second book, A Magician in Many Lands, completed by his wife from an unfinished manuscript and published posthumously, is something of a travelogue of Bertram's adventures in exotic locales. But he often combined repeated trips to various parts of the globe into a single narrative, and was lax, to say the least, when it came to dates. Hence Mr. Dawes doggedly sets to the trail like a detective in piecing together, sometimes from shards of evidence far afield, the actual facts of Bertram's life, to the extent that they can be reconstructed. His efforts throughout are substantial, the results impressive, the narrative lively, the facts revealing.

Bertram was clearly possessed of substantial presence, both in physicality and personality, and Mr. Dawes lets Bertram shine throughout, never allowing his subject to become entombed beneath a pile of dead facts. There are wonderful stories here that keep Bertram almost breathing on the page. An anecdote from Frederic Culpitt, inventor of the Doll's House illusion, tells of his first encounter with Bertram, backstage before a show. The enthusiastic amateur magician excitedly offered his assistance to Bertram if he needed someone from the audience. Of course Bertram would not have wanted the unnatural and potentially overzealous reactions of a magician in place of a layman, but the manner in which Bertram handled the potentially awkward moment reveals much of his humanity and charm. "[H]e looked me over for a second, then, with a most ingratiating smile said, 'I would love to have your help, but, you see, so many people here know you to be a magician that they would imagine us to be in confederacy against them.' Considering that I [Culpitt] was about sixteen at the time, I felt terribly 'bucked' at this suggestion of equality. Afterwards I realized the courteous nature of the reference, which made me a devoted slave." The author brings other personalities to life as well in the course of reconstructing Bertram, such as in a wonderful tale about Nikola and David Devant that none could describe more wryly than Mr. Dawes; the story is too complex to recount here, but the punch line made me laugh aloud.

Of course, no account of Charles Bertram would be complete without discussion of not only his own book, titled with his famous catch phrase, "Isn't It Wonderful?", but perhaps even more significantly, Mr. Dawes also examines a book to which Bertram substantially contributed, The Modern Conjurer by C. Lang Neil. A seminal turn-of-the- century textbook, The Modern Conjurer is notable for its sumptuous illustrations (over 500 photographs), along with entries from not only Bertram (who also wrote the introduction), but the likes of J. N. Maskelyne, T. Nelson Downs, and other premier conjuring names of the era. Also, for those who think women are new to the conjuring stage, substantial portions of the book were contributed by Mademoiselle Patrice, a former student and assistant to Bertram (she was his "Vanishing Lady" in the original London debut of the illusion, and they toured together elsewhere as well), and eventually Lang Neil's wife.

The Modern Conjurer was enormously influential in its day and beyond, and named as a prized volume by countless twentieth-century magicians, including Dai Vernon and John Ramsay; the first time I met Michael Skinner he named it as a personal favorite. A quick glance through its pages will reveal why, perhaps firstly for the wonderful photographs from which the student can instantly grasp important insights into misdirection via the use of body language, stance, and expression. The Bertram photographs are in some cases bursting with personality. A close reexamination will reveal sleights and routines that are still useable today, including his Card Through Handkerchief, Cards Up The Sleeve, and his Four Ace Routine, beginning with the Conus Aces phase (from Hoffman) and moving to the classic (pre-slow-motion) assembly.

Bertram may have done classic effects, and relied on fundamental sleights like the Pass and the Palm, but he clearly had a flair and a passion for magic that comes across thoroughly in these pages. In his performance of the de Kolta Chair, Bertram introduced presentational innovations that even de Kolta himself did not utilize, including apparently putting the woman to sleep via a whiff of an elixir, and the charming touch of the lady's lace handkerchief being left behind on the seat. A detail such as the latter would do no harm to contemporary performances of this wonderful illusion (nor would the presence of a floor covering beneath the chair, often in the form of a newspaper, that was Standard procedure at the time but has sadly been neglected by contemporary magi). Another sign of Bertram's personal touch: When performing the de Kolta Vanishing Birdcage, in a time when there was much controversy and concern over the fact that some magicians sacrificed a live bird in every performance of the trick, Bertram's unique solution served double duty, solving that problem while simultaneously strengthening the nature of the trick itself "[H]e opened the door of the cage, ostensibly to show the bird was alive, and the canary flew out into the hall, whereupon Bertram commented, 'You have flown away, have you? Well, take your cage with you.' Then he threw up his arms and vanished the cage in the usual way.... there was a real touch of artistry about this—the audience thought the action was unpremeditated and impromptu, and consequentially the vanishing was all the more wonderful."

The book is full of photographs, play--bills, programs, cartoons and the like, all beautifully reproduced. Mr. Dawes is an able match for his subject in every way, and his contribution is unreservedly applauded. That contribution concludes with page 218 of this volume, following a detailed bibliography, and then the volume takes a decidedly odd turn.

Why Kaufman & Company did not choose to gracefully conclude the book there is food for speculation. Perhaps it was thought that the book needed magic tricks in it to sell to a wider audience. Perhaps a higher price than 218 pages might comfortably justify was desired or even necessary to recoup costs, and more pages were determined to be the solution to that challenge. Perhaps, on a vaguely more sincere note, it was felt that the photographs of Bertram provided in The Modern Conjuror and elsewhere were simply invaluable in adequately communicating his nature to the reader—and in the case of a photo on page 318, taken from an article in The New Penny Magazine, December 1899, of Bertram performing the Cards Up The Sleeve, there is something to be said for the old saw that a picture is worth a thousand words. Whatever the explanation for the ensuing 135 pages following Mr. Dawes' superb biography, I confess that I find the final outcome bizarre. While it is true that The Modern Conjuror is out of print, old editions can be found for less than the purchase price of the new book in question. Will the inclusion of these tricks sell the biography to a wider audience? I frankly doubt that, and what's more, any student of conjuring or its history willing to shell out sixty dollars for any version of this book will likely already own a copy of the Lang Neil work, or should! Also, The Modern Conjuror is roughly 5-1/4" X 8-1/4", and the current work is large format, 8 - 1/2" X 11". The result is 135 pages with a massive white border that is distracting and awkward. [Note: The Modern Conjurer has recently been re-released in electronic form by Lybrary.com.]

But while I confess that I remain nonplussed by these choices, they do little to deter my enthusiasm for the bulk of the text, its author, or its subject. As Bertram would have said, Isn't it wonderful!

8 - 1/2" X 11" hardcover with multicolor dustjacket; 360 pages, more than 100 illustrations, mostly photographs, plus two full-page color plates; 1997 Publisher: Kaufman & Company