The Davenport Story Volume One by Fergus Roy
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2010)
The name "Davenport" is a stoned and stellar one in the annals of British magic and beyond. Lewis Davenport Limited known to most as Davenports is the oldest family-owned magic store in the world. Founded by Lewis Davenport more than 110 years ago, today the famed London retail store, tucked away in a quiet corner of the underground Charing Cross tube station, is run by a fourth generation of Davenports, continuing a tradition begun by their great-grandfather at the age of sixteen. The name of Davenport is a grand name indeed, one that conjures up the history of 20th century magic.
Fergus Roy, husband to Lewis's granddaughter, Betty, has spent some twelve years amassing a history of the family and its business, and has now released the first of an intended five-volume series. Truly, Mr. Roy has made order of chaos, as the Davenports have been amassing books, props, records, letters, ephemera and memorabilia for more than a century of practicing their multi-generational habit of being confirmed "hoarders," as the dust jacket copy so wryly and accurately observes. Lewis Davenport bought up other stores, businesses, archives, and props from the likes of Servais LeRoy to Maskelyne's Mysteries. It's a remarkable treasure trove but at the same time a monumental accumulation. Somehow Mr. Roy has managed to make sense of it all, and not only has he produced a painstakingly detailed history, but it is clear that he has mastered the material such that he can also make sense of it for readers and future researchers.
Lewis Davenport was born George William John Ryan in 1881. Although he left school in his teens to earn a fledgling living as a cooper (barrel-maker), he was already performing professionally in his teens, and at about age twenty had adopted the stage name of Lewis Davenport. He also performed juggling for a time, a skill that would serve him throughout his life in his signature billiard ball routine, which featured the tossing of solid wooden balls from one hand and catching them between the fingers of the other (reputedly he could even do this with a shell!). Despite some early experiments with Second Sight and spoken humor, and perhaps due to his heavy Cockney accent, Lewis would find success as a silent performer of comedy and manipulative magic, typically presenting a rapid succession of effects at a notably whirlwind pace.
The young Lewis saw many of the great magicians of his time in the course of developing his own act. In May of 1904 he managed to see Chung Ling Soo, De Biere, Paul Valadon, Hardeen, Horace Goldin, and more in just one month!—and many of his personal notebooks and records of such experiences survive, some of which are recorded in appendices to this volume.
Lewis often performed with a partner, beginning with his first wife, Julia, and eventually, following Julia's death from tuberculosis at age 27, with his second wife, Wynne. In 1905 Lewis's first son, George known throughout his life as Gilly—was born, and a year later, by the time Lewis was 25, he and Julia would be featured on the cover of a then major magic magazine, The Magician. At the same time, Lewis, whose energy and appetite for work seemed boundless, was always hard at work on his retail business, issuing catalogs and other printed material on a regular basis. His business skills and tireless work ethic would always include a strong element of printing and promotion. He was to be the first magic dealer to own his own printing press, which he would use to produce a further profit by printing materials for a fee, when it wasn't being used to produce his own flyers and catalogs. And in 1908, the same year he bought the printing press, Lewis would rent his first storefront as well. A generation later and young Gilly would be demonstrating tricks in the shop, standing on an orange box at the age of 10 in order to be seen. By his twenties Gilly would be running the shop while his father was performing on the road and occasionally overseas. Eventually yet another generation would take over the shop as it passed into the stewardship of Gilly's daughter, Betty. And that's where the author comes in, with his eventual marriage to Betty, and thereby, his introduction to the world of magic, which was to become his own shared obsession. The family tradition then continued into the next generation via Bill and Roy, Jr., who are primarily responsible for running the business today, while Roy, like his great-grandfather before him, splits his time with performing as well.
Mr. Roy's chronicle of four generations of magic is supported by a bounty of resources, not only in the written and photographic record, but by the oral tradition of family life, with anecdotes handed down over the dinner table. Along the way, the litany of names the family encountered and often developed deep and lasting relationships with is nothing short of remarkable. Lewis, for example, had a long relationship with Max Holden, and helped him to establish his own famed magic business in America. Gilly was a mentor to the young Ned Williams, who would later gain timeless fame as Robert Harbin. Lewis was a friend to the magical inventor Walter Jean; Gilly would entertain the likes of Cardini at his home; and both Davenports proprietors did business with the magical elites of their respective eras Goldston, Okito, Levante, Downs, Nikola, Dante, and many more. As Mr. Roy relates in passing, on one occasion when the family pulled down a copy of Hoffman's Latest Magic whilst "tidying up the family library, a letter fluttered out and fell to the floor .. .written by Hoffman himself" in 1919. Such are par for the course amid life with the Davenports!
Throughout, there are distinctive tidbits of information for the magical history enthusiast. The text of a handwritten essay by P.T. Selbit about the nature of "ideas" is provided here, with Selbit musing about creativity and the price of theft of intellectual property. Personal and business correspondence provides source material for behind-the-scenes battles, from Cardini's theft of the twirling flower from the act of Hymack (the rights of which were owned by the Davenports), to an intense battle business warfare, in fact between the Davenports and Harry Leat over the production and sale of "illustrated silks," that is, silks printed with drawn figures, a new idea at the time.
Lewis Davenport not only toured internationally but was a frequent performer on the stage of Maskelyne's St. George's Hall. There is tremendous detail provided here of Lewis's performances and repertoire, including his own personal notebooks and brainstorming ideas, and detailed accounts of shows as his performing career progressed. Certain features remained a staple throughout including the breakneck speed and variety along with his opening with the removal of his suit jacket sleeves, his billiard ball manipulation, his original take on the Mutilated Sunshade (parasol), and his trademark multiple color changing waistcoat (vest), which repeatedly changed in rapid and mystifying fashion throughout the act, as did the costume of his female partner even up to and including the bows! Indeed, the methodology, which apparently fooled magicians as well as journalists and the public, remains a family secret to this day.
Throughout, there is also a light but steadying provision of historical context of the great events of war and economy going on in the larger world, the better to understand how it affected show business and the world of magic. The book is extravagantly illustrated, not only throughout the text, but also in six extensive sections of annotated illustrations, each of which follows a chapter of the book. These remarkable resources, printed in black and white (there is also a 16-page color segment devoted entirely to catalogs), run as long as 32 pages in one instance, and are littered with supporting materials and documentation.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that I have had the privilege of knowing the Davenport family for many years: I've lectured at their store more than once, poked around amid the backroom shelves, performed at their centenary convention, and enjoyed their generous hospitality at home. I mention this not simply to confess to any possible bias there might be some but I hope not too much! but rather because I know first hand what Fergus Roy was up against in writing this book, and I am frankly amazed that he has managed to construct such an edifice out of the mountain of raw materials he had to work with, which truly represents both blessing and curse at once. That he has constructed a coherent and orderly narrative seems a remarkable achievement in the face of what had to be a daunting undertaking, and in the end there can be no greater definition of a labor of love as this book, and those which will follow in its substantial wake.
And it turns out there is also a long historical relationship between Davenports and this magazine as well. Davenports always dealt in the current magic magazines from Lewis's earliest days in the business, and Gilly continued the long tradition. And so Fergus Roy informs us that on February 3'", 1937, "Gilly paid William Larsen (Senior) $32.40 for 36 copies of each of the first four issues of Genii which retailed at ten cents. Since that day, GENII Chris "Doc" Dixon Davenports have sold, and continue to sell, this wonderful magazine without a break."
The next volume of the series, to be titled The Lost Legends, will likely be available by the time this review is published. It does not continue the history directly but rather serves to publish previously unseen works, including Robert Harbin's unpublished Magic Marches On, Edward Victor's lost book With Magic Hands, and an unpublished work by G. W. Hunter, The World of Magic.
The Davenport Story is well titled, as it truly is, first and last, the story of a legendary family, and their long tradition of magical performers and purveyors of the first order. The book is mammoth in scope and scale and endlessly detailed, like poking through the attic and shelves of their home and offices and untold storage spaces, while also getting to spend time with the family over tea and biscuits and hearing tales told of relatives near and far, of greats known and remembered. I can't wait for the tale to continue.