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Curator's introduction

London-born Henry Evans, or ‘Evanion’ as he styled himself on stage, enjoyed a long and reasonably successful career as a conjurer, ventriloquist and humorist. Harry Houdini, the American escapologist, remembered him as a "dear old friend who introduced me to a throng of fascinating characters."

Evanion took advantage of this theatrical background to amass a large and fascinating collection of printed ephemera relating to entertainment and everyday life in Victorian England

The British Library now owns some 5,000 items from his collection, originally purchased by the British Museum in 1895. They include many colourful posters and handbills produced as publicity for the various entertainments staged in music halls and theatres, as well as for exhibitions, circuses and other popular events. Trade catalogues, price lists and advertising materials that were once in general circulation reflect both the necessities and the aspirations of contemporary life.

London is particularly well represented from the second half of the 19th century, but the collection contains items from all over the country: Evanion’s performances and connections took him far beyond the capital and his collecting instinct remained keen throughout his life.

We've selected some 2,000 pieces to represent the diversity of trades, products and services that made up the Victorian business world. They range from trade cards to Christmas cards; from shop catalogues to restaurant menus; from the fashions of the day for ladies and gentlemen to the latest models in stoves, boilers and other equipment, domestic and industrial. Most date from the late 1860s to 1895, but the product names are often familiar: Pears Soap, Twinings Tea, Bovril and Vaseline.

Particularly interesting are the detailed illustrations of newly patented techniques and inventions, such as Barrett & Elers’ patent screw-stoppered bottle, or Harrington’s patent cradle springs and cradle-spring chairs and settees. Today these diagrams are all the more fascinating because they show clearly how the inventions worked.

Illustrations also document window displays and the exteriors of particular shops. Detailed sketches take us inside factories: the premises of the Sheffield silversmiths, Walker & Hall, for example, or the workshops of Chas.Baker & Co. in London.

The selection also includes a small number of handbills that epitomize the character of Victorian Music Halls, or Palaces of Varieties. During a single evening there might be 20 or more different acts with favourite performers like Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd literally topping the bill, and lesser known names listed beneath: Sisters Santley (duettists and dancers), Mdlle. Vonare (the marvellous lady contortionist), Bryant’s Minstrels (in fresh ballads and comical representations), J H Maxwell (negro comedian and juggler) and Vento (ventriloquist) – not forgetting Professor Duncan and his wonderful performing collie dogs, and Col. Boone and Miss Carlotta with their den of five performing lions.

The Evanion collection is both interesting and exceptional in the variety of its items and in the many aspects of English Victorian life they illuminate. It’s a rare and significant collection largely because such material was not considered of any lasting value in its own day, and so was neither preserved nor collected. Despite this, the collection includes many examples of fine printing, often extremely attractive and of merit in their own right. As a result, this rich resource provides us with much useful detail of daily life in the later 19th century, forging an especially intimate link with our past.

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