As a small-time collector of magic items, especially books, I tend not to accumulate apparatus, as it is not my area of interest and because it tends to take too much precious space, better left to books. However, from time to time, I find some interesting item that would simply be a pity to leave to rot. This post is about a really nice item, with an interesting story behind.
Let’s start at the beginning. Some years ago, the famous British illusionist, Paul Daniels, decided to downsize his collection: books, posters, apparatus, illusions, ephemera went out for sale, in the capable hands of Tim Reed. In about a year a warehouse outside Doncaster was almost empty, with collectors from all over the world pleased with their acquisition. While browsing the collection’s catalogue, I once saw a “Victorian magic table” being offered for sale.The price was beyond my reach, but I really liked the table. There simply wasn’t any chance I would be able to afford it. Some weeks later, the table had disappeared from the catalogue and I assumed it had been sold: pity, but I wouldn’t forget it.
Months went by and I paid a visit to the warehouse to collect some boxes of books and to browse it, in case there was something I might be interested in. While browsing I saw, in a dark and dusty corner (I swear it’s true!) the same table! It was dirty, the velour on the top had seen better times but I fell in love with it. I had to have it! After much debate with myself (and my wife), I decided to buy it, paying for it in monthly instalments.
After some months, I was able to bring the table home. I really loved it: it is a very elegant piece of furniture, a classic “Hoffmann’s Table”, sporting all kind of traps described in “Modern Magic”: a big rabbit trap, to produce a rabbit from an opera hat (the big oval towards the audience); a “wrist” or “pression” trap, on the left hand side, to make a ball disappear when dragging it on the table while covering it with both hands (my favourite trap, incidentally); a changing trap, perhaps the most amazing contraption in the table, which was used to transform a tall object into something else (perhaps a glass full of bran into a cup of coffee), although I still have to figure out a deceptive way to operate it; two black art wells, interesting although very simple; and a piston for a candle (or bottle) vanish. At the back of the table was present a servante, unfortunately torn and ruined beyond repair. Having only read Prof. Hoffmann’s book but having never seen these traps “live”, this table was taking me back in time, to an age where magic was a popular and refined form of entertainment. In Modern Magic the operation of all these traps is detailed from page 437 onwards.
The table itself, unfortunately, had numerous scratches, some splits and was overall well-worn. The decorative braid on the top was also coming apart in places and it was immediately obvious the table would need restoration. The picture below gives an idea of the damage. Unfortunately the photos of the table pre-restoration are not very clear: the camera I had in 2003 was not brilliant :-(
Another issue I had, was with the dating: how old the table was? 100 years? 70? Was it Victorian or Edwardian? Who built it? To whom did it belong? The table didn’t have any manufacturer’s marks (perhaps they were inside, under the top, but I didn’t dare to take it apart in case the rusty screws were to disintegrate in my hands!). So the table there it sat, dismantled, in my office, waiting for the time I could find somebody able to restore it. The legs come apart with a clever mechanism, a small steel spring that would allow the table to be dismantled and carried while, when assembled, allowing it to be moved around a stage. Likewise, under the feet, a ball of steel protected the wood, avoiding it to wear out when dragged across a stage in its heydays.
Years went by, with the table sitting there, collecting dust once again. Once in a while, when a friend would visit, I would assemble the table and show it, discussing it with some of the finest magical minds who honour me with their friendship. But that was it.
Then, one day in summer 2006, in an issue of MagicSeen, the UK magic magazine, I saw an ad for a restorer of magical apparatus: PMB Ltd. I called the company which, incidentally, is not far from where I live, and arranged a visit to investigate the restoration work. At the end of July 2006, I packed my table carefully and set off to Cambridgeshire. On looking at the table it became evident that a lot of work would be necessary to restore it to its former glory and I agreed to have it restored.
Months, again, went by: 13 to be precise. Working on the table took time, care and patience. Finally, at the end of August 2007, the table was ready! On September 5th I collected it: wow! That was my reaction when I saw it: it was outstanding. It had been cleaned, waxed, the velvet and the braid on the top replaced with period material, the traps cleaned and re-aligned, the piston was made operative again. It was a jewel.
The restorer estimated it was produced between 1910 and 1920: not a too rare table. However, under the table top, he discovered imprinted:
This looked like the manufacturer’s name, so I started some research.
Joseph Bland was one of the earliest magic dealers in London, in a time when Cremer, Novla, Bell and Hamley where the sole manufactures and dealers of magical apparatus in the British capital. Bland, an Italian whose real name was Giuseppe Bolasco, had started trading in magic in 1855 and opened his shop in 478 New Oxford St. sometimes before 1863. On October 19th 1863, Compars Hermann visited Bland’s shop and wrote him a letter congratulating on the quality of his apparatus.
Joseph Bland’s shop, seen here in an advert, inspired H. G. Wells’ short story “The Magic Shop” and provided quality material for a number of amateurs and professionals alike in the last half of the XIX century:
one can assume Bland was providing tricks to Angelo Lewis, aka Prof. Hoffmann, as his books contained detailed information about tricks of the time, the same tricks J. Bland was selling in his catalogue.
During 1882-83, New Oxford Street went through a re-numbering, and Bland’s shop would be located at n. 35. Bland continued to sell tricks until the end of the century: with his death the shop passed into Hamley’s hands: today the old Magical Palace is a shop selling bags.
Given the address stamped on the table, we can surmise it was manufactured sometimes between 1863 and 1882, if not earlier: a middle-of-the-road date would be 1870, thus making it about 140 years old. I haven’t found a Bland’s catalogue of the time, so I cannot date it more precisely: a catalogue from 1885 in my collection shows two tables with heads as decoration, screw-in legs, and a different number of traps: it’s more than likely that the design of the table changed along the years and mine is older than 1885 or even a bespoke model. I don’t know if any Bland catalogues before 1885 have survived: I haven’t been able to locate any but would be glad to examine any existing.
This is the list of traps in the table:
The photo shows the table from the back, with the servante open and the cable for the piston pulled out, ready to operate. If you click the photo, you will be able to see where the various traps are located.
The drawers at the front are just decorative items, they don’t open. The handles at the back (for the changing trap) haven’t been touched.
The table is not too quiet in operation and it will probably never be: to have it silent, elements of the traps will have to be replaced with modern material, but this will of course ruin a table that has stood the test of time. Furthermore, the table is suitable for a magician taller than me so I don’t think I will use it to show magic tricks, unless I will have the opportunity to present a show of historical magic. The noise may have not been a problem on a theatre stage in the 1800’s, with live orchestra playing while the performer pulled handles or opened a trap… it is certainly a problem in the quietness of my den.
The table is now resting in my den, its top protected by a panel of glass, the traps closed and silent. A piece of apparatus that has probably helped a Victorian magician to get applause from his refined audience and which may have cost him a good deal of money, is now the centrepiece of my collection, being as deceptive now as it was one hundred and fifty years ago, ready to deceive now and any time in the future.
As collectors, we have the duty to preserve the objects that we come in contact with and, where necessary, to restore them to their original state (this may be debatable, but the debate will be for another post). I’m just the last, temporary, custodian of the work of Joseph Bland, and somebody will one day take my place.
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