The Genius Of Robert Harbin by Eric Lewis

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 1998)

Robert Harbin was unquestionably one of the great inventive minds of 20th century magic. When his self-published Magic of Robert Harbin was released in 1970 for £27.50 or about 66 U.S. dollars, it became an instant classic, and the 500 original purchasers would own a volume that currently sells for as much as $800 and up. This is not merely due to the book's rarity—the original plates were destroyed— but because the content is among the most important works on illusions ever published, along with Hopkins and Jarrett and few others of comparable standing in the field. That text included the then new but now standard illusions including the Harbin Chair Suspension and, of course, the Zig-Zag. A version of the less often seen Beer Barrel Penetration is currently a feature of the Penn & Teller show.

Eric Lewis was one of Harbin's oldest and closest friends, and as is clear from this biography-cum-magic book, one of his greatest and most appreciative fans. The two first became friends when Harbin arrived in London from his native South Africa in the early 1930s, and their friendship resulted in countless collaborative efforts as well; not surprising given Lewis's own inclination toward prop building and construction along with his own substantial creativity. Lewis was a fitting choice to write this portrait, as he had a deep understanding of the workings of not only Harbin's tricks, but of his distinctly original mind and inventive process.

As recounted by the publisher in the book's opening pages, this project was in the works for more than a decade, as Eric Lewis gradually accumulated the text and illustrations. The book stalled at various points, not the least of which was that once Lewis moved to California in 1968, he lost touch with Harbin until near the end of Harbin's life, and Lewis was apparently uneasy with completing a story of which he lacked firsthand knowledge. Thus Alan Shaxon, who worked with Harbin and grew close to him late in his life, appends the brief closing biographical chapter. A foreword is contributed by the late Bob Lund, who provided research materials for the book, and there is an introduction by John Fisher.

As Lewis tells the tale of Harbin's life in chronological segments, he follows each biographical chapter with a chapter of magic from the period. Students of the historical record will appreciate the careful attempts to date the magic material, both published and unpublished. There is a great deal of magic in this book. There are eight biographical chapters interspersed with nine chapters of magic, capped with a detailed bibliography of Harbin material in print; he was a prolific writer. The magic chapters contain 66 entries, covering the gamut of Harbin's interests and expertise, including mentalism, apparatus magic, escapes and illusions. The breadth of his creativity is stunning, and there are ideas here that will be of interest and use to practitioners of virtually every stripe. Lewis's intimate familiarity with both Harbin's work and with magic design and construction yield multiple benefits for the reader, from correcting errors and updating material from Magic of Robert Harbin— like how Harbin cleverly modernized his Vanishing Radio into a transformation to a small transistor radio—to tips of the trade that will be invaluable to home builders, such as details on how to property adapt roller blinds to magic usage.

As I survey the shelves of my magic library and note the names if the many indiviualk perfirmers, both historucal and comtemporary, celebrated for posterity along thpse upright spines my feeling are torn. I cannot begrudge the pleasure these volumes prode, nor deny my respect for the research they have entailed, but I do raise an eyebrow of skeptisism and poner whether all those names can be that worthy in the sweep of magical history, wonder how oftern mere adaquecy has been distorted into something grander by time, commercial publishingacumen, or both.—John Fisher in the introduction to The Genius of Robert Harbin by Eric Lewis

Harbin was not only an inventor, but an immensely successful professional performer throughout his lifetime. In one year alone, 1968, he made no less than 66 television appearances in England! Also, as Alan Shaxon points out, "...suddenly, he developed a passion for origami. Never one to do anything by halves, he became recognized as a world master, President of the British Origami Society, had a long-running series on TV and produced a string of best-selling books on the subject which were translated into many languages." Harbin was a remarkable man, the likes of which we will never see again, and this book is an important record of his life and achievements, all the more valuable for the rich quantity of magic it presents to us all.

8" x 10" hardbound with dustjacket; 357 pages; illustrated with drawings and photographs; 1997; Publisher: Mike Caveney's Magic Words