My Favourite Londoner: David Devant
Article written by Paul Kieve for Time Out magazine, October 2007.
As a designer of stage magical effects there is something constantly inspiring about the great magicians who appeared during the heyday of variety, treading the boards in places like The Hackney Empire, just down the road from where I live. The inventiveness and creativity of these past masters never ceases to amaze me, and the magician I most wished I’d seen performing is David Devant.
Born David Wighton on February 22nd, 1868 in Holloway, his father, James, was a painter whose work appeared in The Illustrated London News. It was from a biblical painting with the French inscription ‘David devant Goliath’ that young David got the idea for his stage name.
As a young man he was a frequent visitor to, and consequently a performer at, Maskelyne and Cooke’s Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. This was ‘England’s Home of Mystery’ run by John Neville Maskelyne – the most influential of all Victorian magicians. To be booked at the Egyptian Hall was to be recognised as a master.
When Maskelyne moved to St Georges Hall in Piccadilly in 1904 Devant, who had already proved to be a top attraction and astute businessman, soon became a partner and the names Maskelyne and Devant became synonymous with mystery
Devant was hugely popular with the public, and he is still admired by magicians today for his creativity. He had wonderful dreams and did all he could to bring them to life using whatever methods that would make them most vivid.
In The Artists’ Dream a man painted a picture of his late wife. When he falls asleep she materialises from the canvas. ‘Educated Goldfish’ seemingly plucked lettered tiles from the bed of their tank and lifted them to the surface of the water to spell any word chosen by audience members. Any drink called for was poured from the spout of Devant’s ‘Obliging Kettle’ and given to the audience to consume. It’s not hard to see why Devant’s magic had so much popular appeal!
One of his greatest achievements was ‘The Mascot Moth’. He claimed the idea came from a dream of chasing a giant human moth, trying to tempt it towards him with a candle. As he approached the figure the moth vanished. Devant became determined to recreate this and the result was the most baffling stage disappearance probably ever presented.
Devant realised the strength of incorporating his illusions into short magical plays. This idea was at the heart of his philosophy on magic. He believed that the magician was ‘a story teller and should hold the attention of the audience by telling them the most impossible fairy tales, and by persuading them to believe that these stories are true’
Another reason for Devant’s success was his informal, witty and charming performing style in a day when magicians were often lofty and pretentious. His motto was ‘All done by kindness’ a caption which appeared occasionally on his publicity posters.
Devant was also a cinema pioneer. Having attended the first showing of the Lumiere’s Cinemaographe in London, Devant instantly spotted the public appeal and, unable to afford the original, quickly approached Hatton Garden based, Robert Paul, who had developed his own projector. Within days he was showing ‘Animated Photographs’ at Egyptian Hall. Devant later became the agent for the films of Georges Melies, a French magician considered to be the father of film special effects. Devant was also the subject of probably the first film of a performer made in the UK, made by Paul on the roof of the Alhambra.
It seems particularly cruel that he succumbed to a degenerative disease that took away his dexterity two decades before it took away his life. Devant retired in 1919 and spent his last years at the Putney Home for Incurables. In 1935 he published an article in The Windsor Magazine which described some of his secrets and was subsequently expelled from The Magic Circle, (despite being the the first president in 1905), although was re-instated within the year.
At the height of his career, Devant lived at 1, Ornan Court, just off Havistock Hill, an address which now displays a English Heritage Blue plaque in his honour. On the occasion of the unveiling in June 2003 I managed to persuade a resident to let me, accompanied by a couple of Devant’s ancestors, look around what would have been the magician’s substantial dwelling (now a series of bedsits). It was breathtaking to ponder the imaginings which originated in that space and which were brought to life by David Devant, the greatest British magician of all time.
1868 Born in Holloway
1893 Engaged to appear at The Egyptian Hall,
1896, March 19th – Devant shows the first Animated Photographs at Egyptian Hall – the first Englishman to show films in the UK
1905 Becomes first president of The Magic Circle
1912 Appears in the first Royal Command Performance
1919 Career cut short by illness
1936 ‘Secrets of My Magic’ is published
1941 Dies at the Royal Home for Incurables, Putney
2003 2nd June – Blue Plaque unveiled at Ornan Court NW3