Every collector of antique memorabilia has a dream, a single dream common to all those whose passion for a subject has turned into an obsession: the dream is to find a large amount of material that has lied untouched and forgotten for years. It doesn’t matter what the subject of your collection is: cars, photographs, stamps, old masters’ paintings, magic tricks… every collector daydreams about finding a dark attic, a barn, a cellar, filled with unheard-of treasures, dusty but potentially unique.
There are many stories of finds just like that: a couple of years ago, in a barn in the town where I live, was discovered a fleet of luxury cars which hadn’t seen the light of day in twenty years (this is not the hoax of the fleet of cars in Portugal, which, while existing, has not actually been “found”). Magicians are well aware of how the show of Charles Carter re-surfaced after forty years in a barn, or how a large collection of magic posters was recently found in a downtown attic, including a rare Houdini poster.
However, this is for most collectors just a dream. For most collectors, indeed. But sometimes, just some times, dreams may come true…
In September 2010, while looking around on The Saleroom, a British aggregator of auction houses’ catalogues, I noticed some lots about material pertaining to Linga Singh (Amar Nath Dutt, 1884-1937), split in some lots: posters, programmes, photos: all what a collector of ephemera definitely needs for his collection! The curious thing is that the lots were offered by an auction house, Lacy Scott & Knight, in the city where I live: a visit to see the items was possible. In the sale, there were seven lots of theatrical interest (at the time of this writing, the catalog is still available here, but it may disappear in the future), some with posters of the magician during his Russian tour, other with programmes and photos of Linga Singh and other performers.
On the day before the sale, I went to see the lots and to try to get some information on them: how on earth is it possible that material about the Indian illusionist Linga Singh, who had toured the world until his untimely and sudden death in 1937, and whose apparatus had been destroyed after his death, had ended up in Bury St. Edmunds, in the heart of rural Suffolk? An employee of the auction house explained that the lots belonged to an old lady living in town, and were kept in the garage by her late husband, who had a “theatrical career” of sort. The old lady was clearing out the “junk” accumulated in a lifetime and the neighbours saw these items being piled up with the rubbish. On assuming there may be somebody, out there, interested in this kind of material, they contacted the auction house that, of course, was interested and put the lots on their books. And indeed there was somebody interested in these lots, which all in all featured quite well in the auction, with the posters ending almost all up in my collection. I was not able to acquire only lot 170, the “French Art Deco” poster from the image above, advertising a performance from Friday 20 to Thursday 26 August 1926 at the Palais D’Été in Bruxelles.
I also didn’t buy the lots of programmes and photos (lots 172 and 173) as there was relatively little of magic interest. The programmes lot was very large and, yes, there were a number of programmes about Linga Singh and Danté, but I preferred to concentrate on the posters.
Who was Linga Singh? I have to confess that up to 2010 I was vaguely familiar with his name, but I would have been hardly pressed to say anything about this magician, now almost completely forgotten, like many other performers of the turn of the century. But as luck would have it, only a few months before this auction, I had the privilege to meet Nigel Dutt, Linga Singh’s grandson, who had given a talk on this elusive magician at the Magic Circle’s Collectors Day. I was one of the other speakers on the day, talking about Chefalo, a contemporary of Linga Singh. From Mr. Dutt’s talk, I learned about the amazing life of Linga Singh, who was kidnapped in the Indian sub-continent, brought to America and ended up as one of the greatest illusionists of the time, to then die suddenly and having his illusions faithfully destroyed by his companion.
He was apparently the inventor of the horizontal version of the Cremation illusion (where an assistant is slid inside a coffin that is then set alight) and one of the first to perform the suspension of a girl over a sword, an idea presented in 1899 by F. D. Huges (cfr. The Sphinx, vol. 27, n. 12, Feb. 1929, p. 558 – on AskAlexander). This illusion is the subject of one of the posters, printed in Russia, which shows how Linga Singh was probably actually doing the illusion, unlike some other images of the magician showing him holding the sword in his hand, with the lady suspended over it!
In addition to the posters, there was a contract – which explains the origin of the material, a couple of photos, some deck of cards and some magic tricks. The contract is very interesting: it was signed on 14 July 1927 between Linga Singh and Jeff McDougall, who was to begin to work as an assistant for Linga Singh from 25 July, for the amount of £3 5s 0d per week (about £483 of current money). Mr. McDougall had been employed in preparation of Linga Sing’s European tour, where he would have been paid £17 per month (about £2,530). The contract is signed by Linga Singh, giving his address to 53 High Road, Kilburn, NW6, London. I found interesting these clauses in the contract:
8. The Employee shall be liable to instant dismissal for any one of these following: If in a state of intoxication, misbehaviour, using foul language, disobedient, giving any secret of any tricks or Illusions, fighting, absenting, wilful damage to any pro[p]s or costumes; and if so dismissed, shall forfeit deposit money, fare and salary due, and any question under this clause to be decided by the Employer and whose decision shall be final and binding on the Employee.
9. Absolutely no familiarity allowed between “boys and girls” of the show, in and out of Theatre or Circus and boys and girls must not live in the same house. The girls whilst on the Continent are under the strict care of Linga Singh and they are not allowed to go anywhere (specially at night) without the consent of Employer. This is very important and if any girl misbehaving shall be dismissed at once, and sent back to where engaged, but forfeits her deposit money and any salary due (only her fare back) and “boy” for misbehaving with girl shall be instantly dismissed and he shall forfeit deposit money and fare and salary due.
Of course, it is essential that a travelling troupe of artistes work in harmony and relationships between the assistants do not escalate into sexual relationships or love stories that may impact on the results of the performance, or on the wellbeing of the whole company. In addition, the manager of the company has also duties towards his employees: some of them were very young and perhaps the parents had entrusted them to the magician and were expecting him to “keep an eye” on them. The above clauses are therefore not at all unreasonable, they only show a different side of show-business that few know.
Mr. McDougall worked with Linga Singh for about three years, according to the posters in my collection: during this period, Linga Singh toured the British Isles and the continent, presenting the act of The Enchanted Tent, that he was touring with since the early 1920s. The act opened on an empty stage, where a bundle of cloth was suspended in mid-air. It would then unfold itself, taking the shape of a large tent, from which the Indian illusionist would emerge starting to amaze the audience with “classical” tricks of Indian magic and his illusions. In the lot, a photo of the tent, taken in Vienna, Austria, shows the assistants around the illusionist: I believe Mr. McDougall is the leftmost one.
The posters are an amazing collection: Mr. McDougall secured these ephemeral items (51 in all) from many of the theatres he performed in, collecting one or two playbills in each city they stayed, and are a most amazing record of the tour of this little-known but very popular illusionist. They are certainly not terribly exciting: almost all of them are playbills (text only) indicating the Indian magician as the attraction of the week. Some carry photos of Linga Singh, others an artist’s impression of the tent. Not one of them is mounted, a process that will certainly preserve them and protect my investment, but given the amount of posters in the collection, the process will be a long (and expensive!) one.
The playbills go from 21 June 1926 (The Palace in Plymouth) to 22 April 1929 (The Palace in Blackpool), covering England, France, Germany, Austria and Leningrad, Russia. There are some duplicates and the quality varies, from the absolutely pristine ones, to those with holes. All playbills have been folded. In the collection, there are also some handbills and some programmes, mainly from continental theatres.
For the record, below the list of the playbills with their associated dates. Some don’t have a year stated, but this is easily found by checking the day of the week stated on the poster. Only one poster (from the Apollo Theatre, in Vienna) doesn’t have any date on it, but I had it confirmed to be from September 1926. The table lists individual performances: as I said, for some of the dates more than one copy of the poster exists.
|Apollo (weeks 16 to 28)||Dusseldorf||16/02/1927|
|The Regent||Great Yarmouth||25/07/1927|
|Krystall Palast||Leipzig||Oct 1927|
|Krystall Palast (different from above)||Leipzig||Oct 1927|
|Apollo Variete||Paris||Nov 1927|
|Theatre du Manege (Sat.14 to Mon.16)||Verviers||14/04/1928|
|Collins Music Hall Islington Green||London||14/05/1928|
|Ardwick Green Empire||Manchester||11/06/1928|
So, in about 1926 a young man, Jeff McDougall, joined the illusionist Linga Singh and, for almost three years, worked with him, made up as an Indian, assisting a real Indian magician. This activity took him all around England and to the major cities of Europe, up to Leningrad, the cultural centre of Czarist culture and still the first port of call of magic performers wanting to show their skills in the young Soviet Union. Once his association with Linga Singh had ended, Mr. McDougall continued to work in and to love theatre and Variety, assembling a collection of material that, some years after his death, found its place in an auction house in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk, where he had moved to.
Mr. McDougall was not a conjurer but among these lots there were some simple magic tricks: an antique deck of playing cards and instructions on a cyclic stack; a German Svengali pack; a trick where a card could be penetrated by a pencil but shown whole again (something that many dealers, including Davenport, were selling) and a packet of cards with names of drinks for a very simple trick. I like to think that Linga Singh may have spent some minutes handling these cards, teaching the young man how to perform these simple tricks. In any case, I just love to know that I managed to save some of Linga Singh’s life story from the rubbish bin or from it being dispersed to many collectors/dealers. Once again, a collector is a temporary custodian of memories of one’s life.
The photo below is a collage (created by Picasa) of about half the posters in the collection: the size of the individual elements is not to scale, as Picasa arranged the photos as it saw fit. Some of the posters are one-sheet, most are playbills, of standard size. Ephemeral material indeed, and a snapshot on a man’s life. How fascinating!
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