The Davenport story: Volume Three by Fergus Roy
Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii March, 2012)
The Davenport name occupies a unique stature in the history of British magic, beginning with Lewis Davenport, who performed regularly on the stage of Maskelyne's Mysteries. Lewis also founded Davenports Magic, where his son George "Gilly" Davenport followed as chief proprietor and demonstrator, along with other family members. Gilly's daughter, Betty, the third generation. quit school to work in the family business at the age of 14—at her own insistence and continues to lead the business today, along with her husband, Fergus Roy, the author of the book at hand. And in turn, a fourth generation their sons, Roy and Bill continue to carry the Davenport tradition for-ward into the future of magic, not only through Davenports Magic Ltd., but also as performers and producers. When one says that the Davenport name is a name to be conjured with, one is not kidding!
The Davenport family has been recording and collecting magic history for about as long as it has been performing and selling magic, and tales of the famous "crypt," where the collection was housed in the basement of an abandoned church for many years, are legendary. The Davenports would buy out entire magic shows, theater fixtures, the rights to tricks and books, along with the props of retired or dying or deceased magicians—all habits the family continues to practice to this day! From the vaults of this astounding record, Fergus Roy has gathered an extraordinary history. The first volume (reviewed in Genii, March 20101 began the history of the family; the second volume !reviewed in Gene, May 20101 contained previously unpublished treasures seeing the light of day for the first time; and now at hand is the third volume, The Life and Times of a Magical Family, 1939-2010, which completes the family story—at least for the time being. The series will conclude with a fourth volume devoted entirely to the family's wealth of resources about the legendary Will Goldston (and which will be off the press by the time you are reading this).
Given the overwhelming amount of resources Mr. Roy has at his disposal from which to draw his story, it is a wonder that he has managed to make sense of it all, much less tell a coherent tale. But he has managed to do this and more, and The Davenport Story makes for remark-able reading. This is not a report boiled down to the bare essentials; quite the contrary Rather, this is a uniquely told tale—many tales, in fact—not merely of a remarkable family and an historic business, but really, of the history of 20"'-century magic itself, and particularly of British magic, as well as the international realms of magical art, craft, and business which interconnected with it.
I found particularly compelling the opening section of the years of World War II, as the Davenports struggled to keep their business alive through supply shortages, ship-ping limitations, monetary restrictions—and the "blitz" bombing of London. All this, while the British people themselves tried to survive the impacts of the war on daily life, and the hardships that ensued. Against a background of the march of Nazi Germany and Hitler's Third Reich, sto-ries of the buying and selling of magic props might seem to pale. But the opposite is true, as Mr Roy reveals the extraordinary culture of magic during this era, when dealers did business on a handshake. The Larsen family finds a place in this, as they, for just one example of the generosity and sense of community that prevailed, shipped copies of Genii to the Davenports for some five years without ever asking for a dollar in payment, until the war was over and accounts could be settled. Talk about when times were different! And yet this was just one of many examples, and there seem countless touching stories of the soft and generous side of the notoriously blunt and sometimes combative Gilly Davenport.
The war story is a fascinating and compelling one, and since Davenports was a center of magic—a place for touring magicians to visit, a place for magicians around the world to do business with—it is a rich and widely reaching story, for it is really countless stories of the magic and magicians that the family did business with, and the deep and abiding friendships they made. Lives are lived and lost, and stories are reconstructed and recounted from letters, receipts, pro-grams and playbills, and the oral tradition of the family itself, and the stories it has savored and retold over generations of magic counters and dinner tables. And we are the lucky ones who get to be let in, and sit at the feet of history, and listen.
From the war years at the start of this volume we end on the story of the fourth generation. While Bill Davenport has been an amateur performer and close-up magic contest competitor, who after a career in computers elected to return to the family business, his brother Roy has had an even more visible career in the magic community, repeatedly competing at FISM until he finally took a major prize for stage manipulation, along with winning many other awards, and working as a professional performer from the time of his adolescence. The narrative of this earnest and passionate young man is told in these pages, as is his commitment to fulfilling the author's and family's dream of founding a major venue to house and exhibit the family collection. Fergus Roy recounts his years of efforts and frustrations and close misses in this pursuit, and it does appear, in the closing pages, that Roy, Jr may finally be making that dream a reality. Time will tell, and it will be a great boon for magic if and when the project reaches fruition.
In between these past and present and future stories will be found countless more history, of magicians come and gone, names known well and barely, successes and failures and the real-life struggles of a remarkable family and its lives, loves, births, deaths, businesses, and passions. On almost every page there is an anecdote, a tidbit, an insight, a quote from a letter or a conversation—some-thing worth noting, something worth remembering. I must have made a hundred notations or more as I soaked up these pages, but it's impossible to decide which ones are worth mentioning and which to skip over—would you like to know where Marvyn Roy got the inspiration for his light bulb act? Or see a photo of the young Irene Larsen on the British show of television's What's My Line? Learn how Roy Walton came to run a magic shop for the Davenport's? It's all here, and so much more.
This is not a quick or light read; for some there will be too much detail, for others, not enough in their particular special interest. But really, what we have here, is part family journal, part scrapbook with more than 120 pages of photographs—catalog collectors will find much here of particular value—and many more images throughout the book), and part letter from home—a letter that begins some 70 years ago, and just keeps unfolding and adding more news every step of the way. The sheer honor and forthrightness of these people is breathtaking at times, and if you haven't had the chance to meet Fergus and Betty and their family, well, it's good time you took this chance to drop in on their lives and get to know them all a little—past, present, and future. I can attest it's a visit you won't soon forget.