What do Bartolomeo Bosco, Ludwig Döbler and Louis Comte have in common? Well, they were the three greatest European magicians in the first part of the XIX century, exceedingly popular in central Europe and a source of respect and admiration for their skills and their understanding of magic. In my case, they are also the subjects of a rare piece of memorabilia displayed on my stairwell.
The photo at the side shows three small framed pictures (7″x9″ – 18×23 cm) of these three magicians and the rest of the article will give an idea of their importance in the history of Magic and of the scarcity of these objects for collectors.
Bartolomeo Bosco is a magician dear to my hearth: he was born in Turin, North Italy, in 1793 – Turin is the same city from where I came from. His magic skills were legendary and his success in continental Europe in the first part of the XIX Century was astonishing, in an era without television, radio or the internet. He died in Dresden in 1863. Bosco is today associated with the trick of cups-and-balls and one of his techniques to secretly load a ball under a cup is used by almost every performer of this ancient effect. But his magic was varied: he did perform with small animals (according to Robert-Houdin, without much grace or kindness), playing cards, coins and other items, although it seems that sleight-of-hand was the mainstay of his performances. Bosco is widely known for his impromptu performances, on street corners or in taverns, where he would perform, sometimes at length, to entice visitors to his evening shows. Of Bosco we are left with numerous anecdotes and stories, and a scathing review of his performance by Robert-Houdin, who saw him in Paris in 1838. The young Robert-Houdin (33 at the time) had not yet started his professional magic career and did not appreciate the old-fashioned magic of Bosco and his lack of sophistication…
Contemporary of Bosco, Louis Comte was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1788 and since tender age he demonstrated a skill in ventriloquy. To this skill, Comte added the performance of magic tricks and, in 1817, opened a magic theatre in Paris, gaining rapidly in success and notoriety. So much so that he was invited by King Louis XVIII for a performance in his palace where Comte, very cheekily, produced a bust of the King in place of a “freely selected” card, the King of Hearts. This feat so pleased the King that he gave him a glowing review that further enhanced Comte’s standing. His magic dealt with the classical objects of the period but also with flowers; Comte was very popular with the ladies, for both his gallantry and his magical feats. Comte’s son would later assist him in his performances and married the daughter of the composer Jacques Offenbach. Unlike Bosco, Comte, who died in 1859, was greatly admired by Robert-Houdin, who mentioned him in glowing terms in his memoirs.
The last magician of this group is Ludwig-Leopold Döbler, the “cherub of magic”. Döbler was born in Wien (Austria) in 1801, making him the youngest magician of this group. According to the records of the time, he was a very handsome man and the ladies in the audience were very interested in his performances… or in his good looks, maybe. He was probably the most refined performer of this group, working all his life in Wien and reaching great commercial success. His opening effect was the simultaneous lightning of one hundred candles with a pistol shot. The German poet Goethe was greatly impressed by Döbler, as was Queen Victoria in 1842, during a brief visit of this magician to the British Isles. Döbler would retire from magic while still young, in 1848 and died in 1860.
So, three great magicians, all contemporary and all performing in the first half of the 1800s, and in three different picture frames. But what about the ephemeral items themselves?
Well, these three frames are a series of prints on glass of old time magicians, produced in the early 1970s by Wilford Hutchinson, Jr., the son of the famous magic dealer from Ashton-under-Lyne, Manchester. After the death of his father, Mr. Hutchinson continued to be interested in magic, providing articles to magic magazines and, it seems, items to collectors. These prints were produced in a very limited edition of 75 copies: I assume there were 75 copies of each magician. The quality is exquisite: the pictures are gold-gilded and they are reproduction of famous prints/posters of the magicians they depict. Printing on glass is a delicate and time-consuming process, which is today somewhat simplified with technology that, in the early seventies was not available. Bosco’s picture is of course a copy of the famous print from circa 1825, widely available on the internet and in many magic books:
The images of Comte and Döbler are also quite famous and have been used in a number of books. Of my copies, Comte’s is signed, on the back and dated Xmas 1971, while Bosco’s has pasted on the back a typed card providing information on the limited edition and dated February 1973, in addition to its number (04/75) and a signature. These prints come from the collection of the late John Salisse.
But there’s more! For years, I had part of another set, having only the ‘blue’ prints (Bosco and Döbler): recently I have been able to complete this second set with the acquisition of the Comte’s print, via the Martinka auction. I personally like the set and I like seeing these pictures when I walk up and down the stairs. The Comte print, being negative, looks somewhat ‘odd’ in between the other two, but this is not a problem for me.
I think that the correct temporal sequence of the prints is as follows:
- Comte – 1971
- Döbler – 1972
- Bosco – 1973
The objects are quite old, but not ancient. They are certainly rare, as only 75 were ever produced: knowing this fact satisfies the collector in me. What relevance do these magicians have today? Well: they were the superstars of their time and they progressed magic by inventing, performing and refining techniques. Some of their ideas are still in use now, and many of their effects formed the backbone of magic in the second half of the XIX century, the period which did culminate in the “Golden Era of Magic”. To find, today, a poster or an ephemeral object of any of these performers is quite difficult and, when some comes on the market, it is usually in poor condition and at a high price: these prints are, for me, a way to keep a thread going back to Bartolomeo Bosco, Louis Comte and Ludwig Döbler.