Opening up the draft of my neglected historical fantasy, I step once more into that mid-Victorian setting. At once I am faced by a strand that involves mystery, magic and the development of glass. But how, at that particular point in time, do glass and magic connect?
Transparent and pure, glass has long seemed a magical substance. In the furnace, dull sands became a flowing, glowing liquid, hardening again into a solid substance. Glass had been used by alchemists and scientists and, since ages past, offered humans power over light, vision, reflection - and the art of illusion. As a material, glassbrought sparkle and glamour and luxury. It allowed light indoors, and even, in the windows of cathedrals and chapels, illuminated the heavens and coloured the blessings of God.
Better than polished stone or metal, glass could become a mirror, revealing both self and, some said, soul. Superstitions grew. A shattered mirror was rumoured to bring seven years bad luck - the seven years the soul needed to gather itself together again from the fragments - and when death arrived in the chamber, every mirror must be covered in black cloth, lest the soul, as it left the body, fitted into that space behind the glass rather than flying away into the life to come.
British governments saw only the quantity of the new paned windows and by 1696, the first Window Tax arrived. The strict and progressive imposition of the tax led, by 1766, to a spate of walled-up windows as householders tried to avoid the seven-windows-or-more tax ruling. However, by the time the tax was was removed in 1845, glass had already taken on a new, architectural role within the prosperous cities where elegant shopping galleries were being constructed from glass and ornate cast iron.
The new arcades, each one containing several little shops, all lit from the front, offered the better class of shoppers protection from the weather as well as places to see and be seen.
The Soho Bazaar opened in London in 1816, the Burlington Arcade in 1819 and from 1830 onwards, other cities created their own arcades.
Glass was finally established as a building material when Paxton’s Crystal Palace, featuring 300,000 tons of plate glass, offered the biggest and grandest bazaar of them all: The Great Exhibition of 1851. As an experience, the Exhibition influenced the design of the new department stores and their celebratory plate glass window displays well into the next century.
Now, among the many uses of glass in the Victorian era, its role in Magical Illusion has long fascinated me.
As magic moved from local feasts and show grounds into the gaslit shadows of small theatres, all sorts of lighting effects, illusions and subterfuge suddenly became easier to manage. Magicians, other than with sleight of hand, often relied on reflections and shadows to stage their acts. Now, with the arrival of large sheets of glass, new acts were possible - and so it was that in 1852, Professor John Henry Pepper, English scientist and member of the Royal Polytechnic Institute, demonstrated his famous, theatrical “Pepper’s Ghost”.
Bsically, the effect is created by using two areas or "rooms". The audience can see inside the main performance "room" - ie the stage - but the second - known as the blue room – was hidden from view at the side. An enormous, now-available, flat glass plate would be placed carefully at an angle in the main room and at a certain point, the lighting would be altered. At this point the "invisible" screen would reflect whatever was illuminated in blue room. At one the visible room would appear to contain the person or object that was positioned within the brighter-lit blue room. Curtains, drapes and clever lighting effects amplified this popular effect. In December 1862. using this device, there was the first public performance of a scene from Charles Dickens’ The Haunted Man and it was a huge sensation.
The arrival of Pepper’s ghost led to a fashion for short ghostly dramas. Refinements were always being devised: invisible dark-clothed actors manipulatedg white skeletons, phantom swords floated through the air, and disembodied heads and transformations became popular.
The other-worldly effect, combined with the growing interest in human spiritual and intellectual powers, proved a huge theatrical success.
However, Henri Pepper’s Ghost was a troubled creation.
When Pepper tried to register his patent at the Patent Office - as all serious magicians do - he was refused. A Dutch magician, with the stage name Henri Robin, claimed he had demonstrated an identical trick in Paris in back in 1847, although the supposed trick was later replicated and proved unlikely.
Meanwhile, in October 1852, a Parisian artist called Pierre Seguin had patented a small polyscope, a children’s portable peepshow toy that worked on the same principle as Pepper's stage version. Pepper and his partner Henri Dircks attempted to patent a similar children’s device in 1863 but Seguin’s earlier claim across both France and Britain was upheld.
As a partner, Dircks' name was on all the contracts and paperwork, although his passion was in remodelling theatres to show “ghostly phenomena”. However, after a while he noticed that Professor Pepper’s was the only name appearing on all the publicity material. and trouble followed. Pepper persisted, determined to retain and improve his magical Ghost and in 1862, he added a twist to Dircks’ own 1862 peepshow toy idea.
By altering the angle of the glass and using the orchestra pit as the blue room, Pepper made his own Ghost into a star attraction across a greater range of theatres and space and created a craze for dramatic theatrical ghosts. There was, however, a most interesting side-effect: a national shortage of large panes of plate-glass.
Writing this post gave me the chance to re-examine Pepper's Ghost but - yet again - I am left with my own mystery to solve. Given that the Ghost is very much a technological creation, is it possible to create a mood of mystery and subtlety in my writing? Can I recreate the magic? One day, I might be able to answer.
ps. If you are at all interested in magicians, tricks and patent wars, do read “Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians invented the Impossible” by Jim Steinmeyer.