24 October 2018
Magicians have been astonishing audiences around the world for hundreds of years, and in more recent years many have appeared on stamps, as stamp collector and former magician Richard Wheeler explains
The phrase above immediately conjures up a vision of the late, great Tommy Cooper, who was the very first British magician to have his image on a stamp in the ‘Heroes of Comedy’ series of 1998. It could be argued that Harry Corbett came first as he was pictured with a magic wand in his breast pocket and Sooty in a top hat on the 1996 issue commemorating ‘Children’s Television series’, but he really made his name with puppets, rather than entertaining audiences with illusions.
Despite the relatively recent appearance of these magicians on stamps, the theme does stretch back further and there are an array of issues to describe the subject. Of course, relative to collections of ships, animals, national parks, or famous personalities, for example, there have been far fewer stamps issued celebrating magicians or magic in general. But there have been enough related items to create a comprehensive display.
In early times, magic was another name for sorcery, or the art of getting results by supernatural means. This involved chanting spells and the mixing of ‘powerful’ ingredients. Magic was part of religious rituals and celebrations, when worshippers believed that Gods would grant them good harvests. Prime examples were the rituals praising Dionysus / Bacchus in 500 BC, depicted on a stamp Italy, or rain dances, on a Papua New Guinea value, when there was a drought.
Kings employed magicians to support their power over enemies and practise alchemy, an ancient science thought to cure diseases and lengthen life. Merlin was probably the most famous, and has been depicted on screen many times. He made an appearance on a stamp from Alderney in 2006, paying homage to the book The Once And Future King, a homage to the legend of King Arthur written by the late island resident TH White.
Magicians also performed in the streets and market places of ancient Greece and Rome. In the fourth century, magicians were thought to be devil worshippers and outlawed. In the middle ages they were condemned along with witches, imprisoned and executed. But as the idea of entertainment evolved, in the sixteenth century, magic turned away from the powers of the occult, and saw the practitioners become illusionists, mentalists and sleight of hand performers. Technical magic came to the fore in the nineteenth century when magicians used stage lighting, optical devices and machinery to baffle audiences.
The very first magician to be featured on a stamp was Georges Melies, who appeared on a French issue in 1961. He was recognised as one of the giants of cinema who was also a conjuror, inspired by Maskelyne and Cooke whose show he saw in London. He bought the famous Theatre Robert-Houdin in Paris, where he staged performances and films that revolved around magic and special effects.
In 1967 Czechoslovakia issued a stamp that showed a 1934 painting Conjuror with Cards, by artist Frantisek Tichy, which hangs in the Prague National Gallery. However, an earlier reference to the performance of magic was a cachet for the National Congress of Magic held at Segovia in 1953.
From the 1970s onwards, there have been a number of magic issues, in the true sense, but some stamps issued much earlier can be used in a thematic display. A particular favourite is the 1898 USA cover advertising ‘Magic Cough Drops’. I guess those who took them will have been cured by now!
In 1971, France issued a stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the death of Jean-Robert-Houdin, acknowledged as the father of modern magic. In 1976, Jersey and the USA authorised cachets of the death of Harry Houdini, the renowned escapologist, and in 2002, the USA issued a stamp of Houdini, which celebrated the 100th anniversary of The Society of American Magicians for which he was the first President.
As with most themed collections, handstamps can a add another philatelic angle to a display, and worth mentioning is a special handstamp produced in 1974 by the Leicester Magic Circle. The stamp celebrated the organisation's golden jubilee and is probably the first of its type in the UK.
In 2001, Austria issued a stamp to celebrate the life of a famous Magician, Ludwig Leopold Dobler, who was born in 1801. He was one of the first magicians to entertain the Queen at Windsor Castle in 1842, despite only speaking German. His tricks were fascinating. A painting of a winter landscape suddenly changed into a painting of springtime, a wonder-fountain provided any drink called for by members of the audience, and a tin spoon was melted without heat, making the enigmatic German a pioneer of what we now know as spoon bending.
In 2006, Austria also issued a stamp celebrating the life of Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser. Born 1806, the Vienna-based conjuror became known as the Father of Card Magic thanks to his incredible skills with playing cards. While many of his tricks are still performed today, it is said that his wife burned the books detailing his secrets following his death, making his act a truly unique experience.
For many years Monaco has staged Festivals of Magic and so has issued more stamps featuring magic than any other country. Other countries to issue magic stamps include Nevis, Dominica and Guyana, with pictures of David Copperfield, Brazil and Iraq, featuring a magic carpet, whilst Mongolia have issued a Fantasia set with Mickey Mouse in his starry pointed wizard's hat.
Perhaps the biggest magic issue was in March 2005, when the Royal Mail issued a set of stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of The Magic Circle.
The set is very interesting to the philatelist, since a variety of ingenious printing techniques were used so that each stamp can perform a simple ‘trick’. Two are heat sensitive, two show optical illusions and one can be scratched to reveal either ‘heads’ or ’tails’.
The Magic Circle was founded in 1905 when music hall entertainment enjoyed a great popularity and famous magicians headlined shows. The first President of the organisation, David Devant (1868-1941) is shown on the official first day cover to coincide with the British stamp issue. The cover is signed by three past Presidents, David Berglas, Michael Bailey and Alan Shaxon. Devant was the most popular performer of his day and won over many admirers.
One of the Circle's most famous members is HRH Prince Charles, who has appeared on a variety of stamps over the years. Hard to imagine, but he performed the famous cups and balls trick as his introductory performance. Many of the world’s top magicians are also members. Its London headquarters feature a fully equipped theatre, the large Devant Room, used for conferences, close up magic and socialising, a club room and bar, a museum packed with items of interest from a bygone age, and a reference library for the use of members.
There have been many famous names associated with magic featured on stamps and covers not necessarily featuring magic. Orson Wells, Cary Grant, Sacha Guitry, Harry Kellar, Howard Thurston, Kio, and Charles Dickens are amongst them.
On the subject of lateral thinking, Israel issued a stamp to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of Operation ‘Magic Carpet’, Austria has Mozart who composed ‘The Magic Flute’, Australia has a Magic Rainforest set and a celebration of a Children’s book The Magic Pudding, and the USA has former basketball star Magic Johnson!
Numerous other countries have magical related issues too, if the collector has space in the album for these less obvious links to the subject.