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lamontI do a number of talks; but there is only one that contains no magic references whatsoever.  And yet this is probably my best.

I was pondering why this might be so whilst simultaneously re-reading Peter Lamont's very entertaining book on the history of the infamous Indian Rope trick, called The Rise of the Indian Rope Trick: A Biography of a Legend.  It is a great story and told in an amusing style by Peter.  I thoroughly recommend it.

There were numerous explanations how the Indian Rope trick might be accomplished, ranging from mass hypnosis to wires stretched across the top of trees.  Peter's style is such that whilst relating these possible solutions, he is sending them up as being clearly ridiculous in their proposed methods.

understandingIt made me think, though, whether somebody who has no prior knowledge of magic would necessarily be in on the joke.  I suspect that average Jo-Public would have no idea whether mass hypnosis might be possible (after all, isn't that how extreme religious leaders hold their sway over their followers?)   Similarly, when it comes to magic methods generally, most lay people haven't got a first clue how a trick is done; and will believe any hogwash, provided it is dished up in a convincing manner.  Wires stretched across tall trees sounds eminently plausible.

The problem is that once you are well-versed in magic, it is very hard to somehow put yourself back in the minds of lay people.  So when I do magic related talks, I slip in phrases like 'sleight of hand', 'illusions', 'method' and 'effect', assuming that audiences know what I am talking about.  But the chances are they don't; or, if they do, they have a completely different understanding of the meaning.

gillrayMy most successful presentation is on James Gillray, arguably the first ever political cartoonist.  Three years ago I knew nothing about the subject matter.  So in my talk I try to answer all the questions which I asked myself when I started researching the subject.  I therefore don't have to guess at the audience's potential lack of knowledge: I can remember vividly when I shared the same ignorance.  And that, I suspect, is part of the reason why it is my number one lecture.

I am not sure what the lesson is from all of this.  Perhaps just the simple conclusion that when talking magic terminology with non-magicians, try and make sure you are both on the same page.

It is fairly easy to get confused between James Gillray and Thomas Rowlandson.  A couple of times after my talk on James Gillray, I have had people coming up and asking if I had seen his exhibition on at the Queen's Gallery, Buckingham Palace.  I had to explain that actually it was on Thomas Rowlandson and not on James Gillray at all.

blue plaqueThe confusion is particularly understandable as many of the prints that were displayed in this particular exhibtion (it was called High Spirits, The Comic Art of Thomas Rowlandson), had political content that covered the same topics as Gillray.  The difference is that one gets the impression that Rowlandson dabbled at political satire whereas, for Gillray, it was seeped through him.

high spiritsCharles Dickens labelled them together: he called both their work 'wearisome and unpleasant' and their characters 'ugly'. This was because both Rowlandson and Gillray enjoyed portraying both men and women in highly exaggerated styles, which on the whole weren't at all flattering to them.  Although it must be said that Rowlandson enjoyed depicting young women as very attractive and sexually alluring.

It is clear that the Royal Family did see them as distinct.  When the Royal Collection of prints was sold to the Library of Congress in the 1920s (it was said to have paid for George V's stamp collection, but this is probably a fallacy), the Rowlandson prints were retained, whilst all of Gillray's works crossed the Atlantic.  Qutie why Rowlandson escaped such a fate is not known: possibly because he did not attack the monarch as much as some of his colleagues.  Or maybe because the curator was embarrassed about some of Rowlandson's more lurid (not to say pornagraphic) prints; and felt it would be more diplomatic to retain them in England.

cruikshankGeorge Cruikshank is the subject of my latest talk.  He was one of the many illustrators who worked on Charles Dickens's books, most notably on Oliver Twist.  For most people this would be their only knowledge of Cruikshank but in actual fact his work output was phenomenal and spanned close on 80 years.

For me, Cruikshank is a natural successor to my talk on James Gillray; as the former was much influenced in his early years by Gillray.  Indeed when Gillray was forced, through illness, to stop working for his employer (and partner) Hannah Humphrey, she took on the young Cruikshank to replace him.  And some of his satirical prints - particularly of the Prince Regent, later to be George IV, and Napoleon - come close to matching Gillray in their brilliant draftsmanship and unflinching character assassinations.

faginCruikshank was, however, forced to re-invent himself.  Satirical prints (standalone images that were sold through print shops) dropped out of fashion, through a combination of the more moralistic Victorian times and new technology enabling copperplate and wood engravings to be published alongside text.  It is remarkable that Cruikshank made the transition so seamlessly and was able to embark on a new career as the leading book illustrator of his generation.

It was unfortunate for Cruikshank that he never found another contemporary writer as good as Dickens to match his own drawing abilities.  And it was also unfortunate that Dickens dropped Cruikshank after Oliver Twist, primarily because he felt that the illustrator should be very much subservient to the requirements of the author; whereas Cruikshank considered that it should be a partnership - even to the extent of him influencing the writing of some of the text.  As one can imagine, this did not sit well with Dickens.

So, sadly, what would have been a great partnership came to an end.

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