“[Magic] is an art by means of which a man can exercise, as it were, a spell over others and persuade them into believing that they have seen some natural law disobeyed"
David Devant is largely considered the best British stage illusionist and practitioner of magic of his era, although his talents weren’t restricted to conjuring. He was gifted with irrepressible creativity and counted the making and exhibition of films, shadowgraphy, inventing, writing, acting and animation amongst the many strings to his bow. As a magician, he was an engaging and witty showman and possessed exceptional skill which, coupled with superb technique, captivated audiences of all ages.
Born David Wighton in north London on 22nd February 1868, he became enamoured with conjuring when, as a 10-year old boy, he watched a travelling magician called Dr Holden perform. This so inspired him that he rushed out and purchased a selection of tricks that he practised diligently, using his siblings as a test audience. From that point onward David immersed himself all things magical, poring over books such as Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin’s Masterpieces and Modern Magic by Professor Hoffman, and regularly attending shows at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly to watch and learn from performing magicians as they confounded their audiences.
While visiting an art gallery with his father, David was particularly drawn to a painting entitled David Devant Goliath and decided that this would make for a great stage name. And so a soon-to-be legend was born. While managing a tour of the British Isles with the two famous American midgets, General and Mrs Mite, David began performing his magic act and in 1888 met his future wife, who caught his eye after he allegedly saw her reflection in a mirror. Three months later, Marion Melville became not only Mrs David Devant but also a part of one of her husband’s illusions known as Vice Versa. It was this very illusion that Devant invited John Nevil Maskelyne, owner of the Egyptian Hall, to view at the Trocadero after he learned that one of Maskelyne’s illusionists (Charles Morritt) was no longer with the company. After seeing David in action, Maskelyne challenged the bright young magician to create a new illusion specifically for the Egyptian Hall and less than a fortnight later, Devant presented Artist’s Dream to Maskelyne. Artist’s Dream was a rather poignant illusion in which a grieving artist, clearly still mourning his recently deceased wife, painted a full length portrait of her through which she magically came to life. Maskelyne opted to add a script and music and the role of the artist was given to an actor, while Marion played the woman in the painting. David was taken on at the Egyptian Hall as a conjurer in his own right. Finally! He was now employed at the very theatre in which he’d studied and learned from the tricks of other magicians as a younger man.
David’s reputation grew, as did his audiences, and in March 1896, he exhibited the first animated photographs at the Egyptian Hall. He got his hands on one of Robert Paul's Theatrograph projectors and, at his own expense, introduced it to the theatre’s performances. Apparently Maskelyne, who’d been initially apprehensive about the introduction of the Theatrograph, soon realised its potential and began to enthusiastically introduce each performance! A review of the first performance read:
“The first moving scene announced by Mr Nevil Maskelyne is a band practise. The music of the march that one may imagine is being played is given on the pianoforte by Mr F. Cramer.”
David certainly didn’t rest on his laurels and industriously continued creating new illusions and tricks to keep his show original and exciting. He delighted audiences with tricks like “The Magic Kettle", from which multiple alcoholic beverages suggested by the audience were poured, as well as the fantastic “Mascot Moth” illusion. This was one of his best, in which a female assistant (wearing a silk dress with beautiful wings attached to her arms) weaved around Devant, who held a lit candle in his hand while trying to entice the beautiful moth-woman toward him. Just as Devant drew the candle to the moth-woman’s wings, she literally disappeared with a flash right in front of the gobsmacked audience.
(“Mascot Moth” was actually inspired by a curious dream that Devant had one night. He recalled the incident:
“My wife saw me get up and light a candle and go through all the actions, which were afterwards performed on the stage, with my eyes wide open, although I was obviously asleep. The next morning I awoke with a clear conception of the illusion, complete with new principle, with the exception of a few mechanical details which were supplied by my friend Bate”.
Even Nevil Maskelyne was bamboozled by this illusion and described it as “the trickiest trick” he’d ever witnessed)
Another of David's most popular tricks was called The Egg Trick, although he didn't invent it. A young volunteer was invited up onto the stage to assist David as he rapidly produced a seemingly never-ending quantity of eggs from an empty top hat. The charm of the trick was the almost slapstick humour that came from it: the boy or girl couldn't possibly hold as many eggs as were materialising from the hat, resulting in eggs being smashed all over the stage as the hapless young volunteer battled to retain all of them.
The Magic Circle
The Magic Circle was formed in 1905 after 23 magicians met at Pinoli's Restaurant on Wardour Street with the aim of creating a society that would further and preserve the interests of magic. The initial meeting was chaired by Servais Le Roy, a Belgian magician, and The Green Man pub in Soho played host to their first official meeting. The meetings were later moved to St George’s Hall on Langham Place which was, fittingly, the venue that Maskelyne and Devant moved the company to after performing at the Egyptian Hall so many years previously. By this point, Devant wasn’t just working for Maskelyne but alongside him as a partner, with their company now known as Maskelyne and Devant’s Mysteries.
The following year, The Magic Circle published a magazine called The Magic Circular, first edited by Maskelyne with a monthly edition distributed to its members. It was Maskelyne who proposed the society’s motto “Indocilis Privata Loqui". This is Latin for "not apt to disclose secrets" and is pretty much the organisation’s Golden Rule. This rule of preserving the secrecy of the mechanics behind tricks and illusions was (and still is) vitally important and was supported in the Society’s set of rules, first drawn up by Neil Weaver (the son of an amateur magician and one of the founding members of the organisation). I imagine that this Golden Rule was akin to the 1905 conjurers’ version of the film Fight Club: “The first rule of The Magic Circle is: You do not talk about the mechanics behind your magic”. Any member caught intentionally revealing magical secrets to anyone other than fellow magicians or students of magic would suffer the indignity of an enforced resignation from the society (or were they ‘ex-spelled’?).
Scandal Part I
Bearing in mind The Magic Circle’s motto, I’m sure you can imagine the furore when a member of the society committed the cardinal sin of showing the layman how to perform tricks. Worse, the guilty party was none other than David Devant himself, one of the organisations founding members and its first President! Devant had contributed to a series of articles called Tricks for Everyone, published in The Royal Magazine from 1908 to 1909. As the title suggests, the articles made magic more accessible to the reader but the David’s contribution to the publication was construed as a breach of that all-important breach of secrecy (this was despite David trying, but failing, to stop the production of the magazine). It was an incident that split the magic community in two and Devant resigned on 5th April 1910. He was however later reinstated two years later.
Devant’s contribution to these articles wasn’t motivated by spite or the desire to expose his fellow magicians - he’d contributed them because he truly believed that the articles would benefit the art of magic, an opinion that his friend, former stage partner and current President of the society, Nevil Maskelyne, supported (it appears as though both Devant and Maskelyne believed that technological advancements could be used not only benefit their performances but also to expose frauds and potential faults – see Additional Notes on Nevil Maskelyne).
In 1909, David and his sister Dora utterly baffled audiences with a mind reading trick called Transludication. Six audience members were each passed a blank visiting card and were invited to write a message on the card without anybody else seeing it. Each card was placed into an envelope and sealed, and all sealed envelopes were collected in a black bag, which was to be brought to the front of the stage where Dora (who was completely blindfolded) sat near the footlights, surrounded by a semi-circle of volunteers behind her. However, something completely unexpected happened that even Devant himself couldn’t have anticipated. As the person collecting the envelopes approached the seat of Sir Oliver Lodge, the eminent physicist, Sir Oliver stood up and insisted that his own card, written at home before the performance, be added to the bag and challenged Dora to 'read' it.
Sir Oliver's card was dropped into the bag with the others and the bag then bought to the stage and placed into Dora’s lap by her brother. David stepped away from his sister and explained to the audience that what they were about to do involved no trickery or fraud and could be done by anyone in the auditorium. The anticipation in the room was palpable as Dora reached into the bag and, one by one, drew each sealed envelope up to her forehead and ‘read’ the message within while still blindfolded. The unopened cards were then returned to their owners, each of whom confirmed that Dora had just relayed the messages on each card absolutely correctly, including Sir Lodge’s. Sir Lodge stood up in his seat, appealed for silence from the stunned audience and then said, “I do not understand by what means this marvel has been accomplished. I know nothing in science that could account for it, and although the lady herself may be unaware of the supernatural powers she is exercising, I believe that the intervention of such power alone could offer a solution.”
David Devant himself said afterwards of the incident, “I saw him after the performance and tried to assure him it was trickery but he frankly said that he did not believe it”.
The Royal Command Performance
David was invited to appear at the very first Royal Command Performance, in July of 1912, for King George V and Queen Mary, an enormous honour given that it was the monarchs who decided who would perform and who wouldn’t. This glittering event was held at the London Palace Theatre and was a terribly extravagant affair, with the entire theatre and all the boxes being decked out with three million roses. David performed alongside not only vaudeville star Wilkie Bard (who, coincidentally, is also interred at Highgate Cemetery East) but other entertainment heavyweights such as Harry Lauder, Clarice Mayne, George Robey and Fanny Fields but to name a few.
(Incidentally, this was the same Royal Command Performance to which the music hall legend Marie Lloyd was scandalously not invited, due to her act being considered far too salacious at a time when music hall was supposedly regaining a respectable reputation. Marie was positively adored by the public but was considered too common to perform in front of royalty because, scandalously, she’d had the temerity to marry three times. Oh how times have changed… Elizabeth Taylor, who famously married eight times, was made a Dame by Queen Elizabeth II in 1999)
By 1919 at the age of 52, David’s health had begun to fail. He’d noticed that his hands had begun to shake while performing and he was diagnosed with ‘paralysis agitans’, or what we now know as Parkinson’s disease. The main symptoms of this debilitating condition are stiffness and rigidity of the limbs, shaking and loss of agility. In some cases, the disease can cause speech and communication problems and can also adversely affect the memory. For someone who’d based his entire life’s work on dextrous sleight of hand and constant interaction with audiences, this diagnosis must’ve been absolutely devastating to David. By 1928 Marion Devant passed away from alcoholism and, by this point, David was unable to walk or control his hand movements. Although he was confined to a wheelchair, David continued to write books and teach magic.
In 1931, David wrote an autobiography called My Magic Life, which was followed up with Secrets of My Magic four years later. An excerpt from the latter entitled “Illusion and Disillusion” was published in the Windsor Magazine in December 1935 and once again, David found himself in hot water with The Magic Circle for contravention of Rule No. 13. He was forced to resign in 1936 and said of his expulsion:
“The tricks I had exposed were my own, so I did not think I had broken any rule. I owe it to posterity to give to the world my secrets before I die. I don’t think I shall live much longer. Exposing tricks or illusions—providing they are not someone else’s new invention—is good for the profession. It stimulates public interest in magic and forces magicians to seek new tricks rather than to stagnate with some that are centuries old. The Magic Circle seems to think that it is the mechanics of a trick that are the secrets of its success. In my view, it is only the artistry of the performer that can make it magic.”
Death & Burial
By 1937, David had been placed in the care of the Royal Home for Incurables in south west London, and was presented an Honorary Life Membership by The Magic Circle the same year. Every year following his admittance to the hospital, a group of magicians from The Magic Circle performed for David at his bedside, a tradition that has continued long after his death 1941. He is buried in Highgate Cemetery in the Dissenters’ section of the West cemetery. The grave is not accessible by guided tour because it’s in a rather tricky spot to locate but is cared for by The Magic Circle.