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Circuses, Magic and Hypnotism: Welcome to the World of Victorian Entertainment

See what the Victorians did for fun.

"The Great Alvantee, King of the Slanting Wire".
"The Great Alvantee, King of the Slanting Wire". All Photos: © British Library Board

Magic shows, wax works exhibits, hypnotism displays, circuses and séances. For the Victorians, there was no shortage of options for an evening’s entertainment, which may explain the hyperbole of their advertisements. “THE WONDER OF THE AGE”, proclaims the poster for a performance of “Mesmeric Seances”. “The Most Startling Mystery Ever Presented to the Public”, declares another, for a show at Egyptian Hall.

These attention-grabbing posters are the subject of an exhibition currently at the British Library, Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun. Drawing mainly from the Evanion Collection, an archive of around 6,000 items collected by conjuror and ventriloquist Henry Evans Evanion, it explores how popular entertainment was advertised to Victorian audiences.

In addition to being a well-known entertainer who performed for Queen Victoria, Evanion was an avid collector of Victorian ephemera. It is thanks to him that we can see the promotional material for “The greatest performing elephant in the world” or for Madame Tussaud’s 1889 Christmas holiday attractions, items that may have otherwise been thrown away, plastered over or destroyed with time.

Using this material, the exhibition focuses on five well-known 19th-century performers that reflect the types of popular entertainment in the Victorian age: hypnotist Annie de Montford, music hall actor and comedian Dan Leno, circus owner Lord George Sanger, magician John Nevil Maskelyne, and Evanion.

Atlas Obscura has a selection of images from the exhibition, which runs through to March 12, 2017.

An advertisement for "Mysterious and Amusing Entertainment, The New Dark Seance & the Wonderful Skeleton!"
An advertisement for “Mysterious and Amusing Entertainment, The New Dark Seance & the Wonderful Skeleton!”
From 1895, an advertisement for Winter's Panopticum, "The Best Wax-Work Museum in the World."
From 1895, an advertisement for Winter’s Panopticum, “The Best Wax-Work Museum in the World.”
Entertainment galore at the Agricultural Hall at the Royal World's Fair
Entertainment galore at the Agricultural Hall at the Royal World’s Fair
"Modern Witchery" at Egyptian Hall.
“Modern Witchery” at Egyptian Hall.
Madame Tussaud's "Grand Attractions for the Christmas Holidays" poster.
Madame Tussaud’s “Grand Attractions for the Christmas Holidays” poster.
An array of animals on display in this poster, advertising "Everything quite new to London".
An array of animals on display in this poster, advertising “Everything quite new to London”.
"The Mahatmas Outdone", a show at Egyptian Hall, "England's Home of Mystery".
“The Mahatmas Outdone”, a show at Egyptian Hall, “England’s Home of Mystery”.
A poster for magician Buatier de Kolta.
A poster for magician Buatier de Kolta.
"The Greatest Performing Elephant in the World", twice daily at Sanger's Grand National Amphitheatre.
“The Greatest Performing Elephant in the World”, twice daily at Sanger’s Grand National Amphitheatre.
A theatrical program from 1879, for Maskelyne & Cooke "Royal Illusionists and Anti-Spiritualists".
A theatrical program from 1879, for Maskelyne & Cooke “Royal Illusionists and Anti-Spiritualists”.
Little Sandy's Benefit Poster, 1886.
Little Sandy’s Benefit Poster, 1886.
Poster for Annie De Montford's "Mesmeric Seances" at the Music Hall, Barnstaple, Devon.
Poster for Annie De Montford’s “Mesmeric Seances” at the Music Hall, Barnstaple, Devon.
Poster for <em>The Fakirs of Benares</em> at Egyptian Hall.
Poster for The Fakirs of Benares at Egyptian Hall.