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Wonder Workers and The Art of Illusion

Review of the lecture given by Bertie Pearce
on July 26th 2017

Bertie Pearce has a B.A. Hons in Theatre Studies from Manchester University and a Diploma Internationale from the Ecole Internationale du Theatre Jacques Lecoq.  He is a member of the Magic Circle with Gold Star and has entertained a wide variety of audiences from those aboard cruise ships to the W.I., theatre clubs and the Sussex Magic Circle.  He is the grandson of levitation artists.  He has written for national newspapers and travelled the world performing his magic cabaret show.  But no amount of biographical detail prepared us for the fun and laughter we enjoyed as Bertie took us on a whistle stop tour through the history of wonder workers from Ancient Egypt to modern times.  We should have been on our guard as he began by telling us that the more intelligent the audience thinks it is, the more easily it is fooled and that his most challenging audiences are five year olds.  All this relayed as he proceeded to tear a double page spread of The Daily Telegraph into 58 pieces which he then magically reassembled.

Throughout the session, with his very quick wit and funny repartee he diverted our attention away from his hands and shocked us all with his skill.  This was more like a night at the music hall than a serious lecture but none the less informative for that.  He began by opening and closing quickly a flaming bible to remind us that the early illusionists were the ancient sorcerer priests who brought together their knowledge of early scientific discoveries, the sacred and the theatrical.  He shared with us details of famous wonder workers over the centuries to modern day whilst acknowledging that the height of their popularity was in the Victorian music hall.

With reference to the C15th painting The Conjurer by Bosch, of a group watching a magician performing the three cups and three balls trick, he illustrated how illusionists worked not only on a large scale like the ancient priests with altars, flames, fire and gas, but also on a much smaller scale.  We see onlookers duped by the conjurer’s pockets, pouches, a distracting dog and the accomplice in the crowd.  For these illusionists an audience is vital and the attraction for the audience is never quite working out how the trick can be done.  To this day this trick can hold an audience spellbound.  And Bertie did just that.  In his battered hat with his magic pouch strapped to his waist, he set up his Lakeland ironing board covered with green velvet and proceeded to mesmerise all of us as he called for us to choose which ball was in which cup and stunned us all as three balls changed into a lemon, an apple, an orange.

Hieronymus Bosch and workshop (circa 1450–1516)  The Conjurer
Musée Municipal, Saint-Germain-en-Laye

In the C16th, a time when fear and belief in witchcraft were widespread, Reginald Scott published The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584) in an effort to show how many popular tricks could be executed without the use of supernatural powers.  The C17th and C18th saw the growing popularity of wonder workers at the great fairs held at locations such as Southwark and Tyburn.  As belief in witchcraft waned and magic shows moved to more respectable venues, characters such as Isaac Fawkes pioneered the art of the close-up trick and with them made his fortune.  Bertie enlisted the help of members of his audience to show how, by merely calling out ‘Eggo! Eggo! In the baggo!’ we too could execute the close-up trick of moving a duck egg from one end of the row to a velvet bag at the other.

The character who brought illusion and conjuring into the theatre was a French man called Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, seen as the father of modern magic.  At his Soiree Fantastique at the Palais Royal he employed three basic ingredients.  He used the possessions of members of the audience, he dressed in modern day dress and he made claims to no magic powers.  His skill in the sleight of hand and in the use of high powered automatons drew him the admiration of high society and he performed shows at Osborne House and Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria.  Bertie entertained us with just one of Houdin’s tricks which required a member of the audience to cut a length of rope into sections only to see Bertie work the wonder of instantly putting it back together again.

Houdini performing the Chinese Water Torture Cell

Houdin’s influence on one Erik Weisz was profound.  An immigrant into the US, he had read Houdin’s book and took his name, added a letter and became known as Houdini.  In Bertie’s view his magic was second rate but his escapism was tremendous because he communicated so well with his audience and injected such a sense of danger and drama into his work.  Likewise, Uri Geller who convinced everyone he wasn’t a magician but had the psychic ability to bend spoons.

Into and throughout the 20th century certain illusionist acts became firm favourites though some were none the less dangerous for that.  The trick of catching a bullet between the teeth has killed 24 illusionists including William Robinson who was killed at Wood Green Music Hall in 1918 in the course of his act impersonating Chung Ling Soo.  Smoke and mirrors have an enduring ability to captivate audiences and illusionists were quick to employ whatever science could offer.  As Bertie revealed just a little of the trickery, few if any of us really grasped how with the use of limelight and a mirror an actor could be so convincing as a ghost.  This was the kind of magic that enthralled Lewis Carroll, J.B. Priestley and Kipling.  This was the era of William Bullock, Jasper Maskelyne and perhaps the greatest magician of all, Devant.  It was a time when venues like the Egyptian Hall and St. James’ Hall drew large audiences.  And to illustrate the appeal of such shows Bertie performed even more tricks.  He called upon the services of our Programme Secretary Liz to join him in a favourite trick of the 1940’s which saw him guide her through the tearing of two pieces of tissue paper which he so skilfully then transformed into a hat and a bag.  He claimed telepathic thought transference was not his forte whilst managing to identify the exact word another member had chosen from a dictionary.  He finished with a trick he claims all of us could perfect and one that would certainly impress friends, relatives and even the five year olds as he changed a red hanky into an egg and then broke a real egg to round off the trick.

We travelled with him through the time of ancient sorcerers, street performers, music hall legends and TV stars such as Nixon, Daniels and Tommy Cooper to a time now when young performers are taking the art of illusion back to the streets.  And he made a plea for all of us to get young people away from screens and into live theatre so they too can enjoy this ancient art.  He finished an evening of great entertainment with this quote from Doug Henning:

‘The art of the magician is to create a sense of wonder.

If we live with a sense of wonder, our lives become filled with joy.’

He certainly filled our evening with joy!

Vivien King

Related Link (opens in new windows):

Bertie Pearce's website