Monsieur Philippe De Barr
Two resources for researchers of Australian magical history are essential starting points. Will Alma’s “Magic Circle Mirror” magazine contains many historical articles based on his own research and an extensive collection of original material which is now held in the State Library of Victoria ( http://www.slv.vic.gov.au/search-discover/explore-collections-theme/film-performing-arts/magic/wg-alma-conjuring-collection )
The other is the book, “Magical Nights at the Theatre” , written by Charles Waller, and published by Gerald Taylor Productions Melbourne in 1980.
Both works are somewhat Melbourne-centric, and Waller’s reminiscences are not published as closely-researched history; there are many incorrect details, but the material is invaluable. Alma’s research is remarkable for the resources available to him at the time. Now, with online searches, the net can be cast far wider and with less effort than in the past. It is by standing on the shoulders of such writers that we can build and extend the historical record.
In the case of our current subject, Mons. Philippe De Barr, both Waller and Alma have not possessed sufficient information to do justice to a man who appears to have been quite a remarkable talent. As a result he has been passed over as a “lesser light” and one about whose repertoire little is known. In fact, some of the most detailed descriptions of a performance are given in the reviews below.
The “Argus” stated in 1858 that “M. De Barr is, beyond doubt, the best conjuror that has hitherto set foot in this colony”; a significant statement considering that the Wizard Jacobs had preceded him in 1855.
The Magic Circle Mirror, April 1972 (Will Alma, Victoria)
Magical Nights at the Theatre
Philippe De Barr in Australia
Having played in the Far East since at least 1856, De Barr arrived in Hobart (Tasmania) on January 22, 1858, on board the ‘Bentley’ from Melbourne.
As “Mons. Philippe De Barr, the great professor of Natural Magic”, he announced a season of a ‘few nights’ from February 2 at the Theatre Royal. His advertising lacked the usual bombastic claims though, in what may have been a first for conjurors in Australia, a pictorial advertisement showed De Barr standing on the stage of a very large theatre.
The press, in making mention of the coming performances, referred to earlier good reports coming from Calcutta – “a really wonderfully clever conjuror. His tricks were all performed with greatest sang froid and most perfect confidence, and so neatly that they well merited the applause they met with.”
Apparently the caution of Hobart audiences towards unknown performers was overcome, as Mons. De Barr performed through until February 15, on which night his Benefit performance was announced. Said the Hobart Town Daily Mercury, “we hope it will be extensively patronized, and that the Temple of Mystery will be crowded with spectators. This clever artist is a man of undoubted ability, and his legerdemain is performed with so much skill as to defy discovery. On Saturday an unfortunate contre tempe occurred by the accident of the heavy shower which deluged the city at the time notified for the Juvenile Performance, and thus deprived our youngsters of the amusement prepared for them. We sincerely hope that Mons. de Barr will not leave our shores impressed with any notion of our want of patronage of the eminent ability of so clever and entertaining an artiste.”
On February 17, De Barr gave a performance in aid of the Indian Relief Fund, raising nearly £8 pounds although the attendance was not a great as hoped. By February 20 he was on his way North, where performances were announced for the Cornwall Hotel at Launceston ‘before leaving for Sydney’. These performances nearly coincided with those of Professor Bennett Clay, also at the Cornwall Assembly Rooms; however Clay appears to have finished by the 24th, and De Barr was to open on Monday, March 8, for three nights only.
Cornwall Chronicle, March 3, 1858 –
M. de Barr has recently arrived from India. The Bombay, Seindan, Persian and other papers contain accounts of his wonders.
The wizard’s first performance clearly lived up to expectations:-
Launceston Examiner, March 9, 1858
Of all the extraordinary things accomplished by the wonderful magician, not one failed to elicit laughter or produce (with many at all events) a feeling of wonder. Before the performance commenced the audience sat for some minutes gazing at a white curtain stretching across the hall, and the imagination was at liberty to picture to itself the mysteries it concealed. At last it rose, and revealed the Temple of Enchantment, or as the Professor himself modestly styles it, his “little cabinet” occupying nearly a third of the area of the room, full of all sorts of curiosities, bright wit colors, and sparking with light falling on ten thousand shining points; a fairy palace! Space and descriptive power might fail us if we were to attempt to narrate all that the magician who lives in it did. Nothing seems too difficult for him; the very elements appeared to obey him, for having poured into one vessel the contents of two separate glass, one containing wine and the other water, he poured them out again and they were separate as before, the wine in one glass, the water in the other.
Having obtained a hat from a gentleman in the audience, to the great delight of the spectators he drew from its apparently boundless stores a variety of articles consisting wearing apparel, a wig, and then at last there fell from the hat on to the floor something that looked and sounded like cannon balls, or as they were called in the programme “Sebastopol pills.” M. de Barr seems to possess the secret of the philosopher’s stone, for he produced a number of sovereigns in a mysterious manner, some being drawn forth from the sleeve of a young gentleman who went on the platform at his request. A ring and handkerchief were obtained from a lady in the audience and both were afterwards found to have got into the interior of a loaf of bread, but how they got there must ever remain a mystery. “An African gentleman” (or rather the head only, for the rest of his person was not forthcoming) was next introduced on the scene, and from his gigantic mouth issued a voice in response to the magician’s queries; and from the same obliging aperture were ejected three cards selected by persons in the audience.
The next trick displayed M. de Barr’s talents in a thing which alone ought to make him very popular in Launceston, which suffers so much at present from a scarcity of fresh eggs. From an empty bag (and the professor was particularly careful to let his audience see it was empty) he drew forth about a dozen and a half of eggs in succession. A duck which possessed in a remarkable manner the power of understanding the professor’s broken English, was next produced, and then another hat was obtained amongst the audience, and an interesting conversation took place between it and the professor, in the course of which the hat informed the professor that it cost 20s. when new; its present value is estimated at 9s. It stated it learned dancing before it emigrated from England, and at the request of the professor favoured him and the company with a specimen of its skill by dancing a polka performed by Mr. Sharp’s band. M. De Barr next proved he could best Christopher Columbus into fits at the “egg trick”, for whereas the celebrated discoverer of America made an egg stand on one end by breaking the shell, M. De Barr (who is of course a far greater man than the old sailor) caused an egg to stay on the concave surface of hat without falling – a phenomenon which is only equalled by the appearance presented by ships in works on navigation when making a voyage around the world.
The next trick which M. de Barr performed would almost make on believe he knew how to get rid of the “aphis” and all other evils which have recently produced much havoc in the vegetable kingdom, for by his magic touch an apple tree was made to bud, to blossom, and to bear fruit – fruit, too, rivalling that which grew in the garden of the Hesperides, for a lady having lent Mr. De Barr a gold ring, he commanded an apple to fall, and in it was found the golden circlet! The magician proved that he could impart life to things inanimate by causing some paper figures to dance to the music of the band – figures that like the visionary heralds in “Marmion” seemed to ‘Gibber and sign, advance and fly, While nought confirmed, could ear or eye, Discern of sound or mien.’
The last exhibition was the well known experiment of the clairvoyant, the patient being a lad who travels with professor, and with his eyes bandaged and his back to the audience he answered correctly every question put to him respecting articles handed to the professor by the audience. But we must conclude; our notice is longer than we intended. Our readers will think we have said enough.
Terrores magicos, miracula, portenaque Thessala rides? Then go and see M. de Barr.
The Cornwall Chronicle (Launceston) March 10, 1858
Launceston Examiner, March 16, 1858
Mons. De Barr was still at Launceston on March 22, when he gave a performance in support of the Mechanic’s Institute Building Fund. On March 27 he departed on the steamer ‘Royal Shepherd’ for Melbourne, listing two servants amongst his retinue.
It was not until April 20 that the wizard started promoting his first appearance in Melbourne, on April 26 at Hockin’s Assembly Room, two doors down from the Commercial Hotel (later Hockin’s Hotel) on the corner of Elizabeth and Lonsdale Streets.
The Argus, April 27, 1858
De Barr played at Hockin’s Room (at the same time as Professor Bushell was exhibiting at the Mechanic’s Institution in Collins Street) until May 14. The Herald, on May 15, said, “We have already spoken in high terms of the attractiveness of M. de Barr’s entertainment, the success of which is owing not more to the excellence and ingenuity of the tricks themselves, than to the extreme neatness with which they are accomplished, the beauty of the apparatus, etc., also, we may add, to the polite manners of the Wizard.
From this time, Mons. De Barr’s name vanishes from the Australian press, obscured only by a stream of advertisements from one “M. De Barr” of Goulburn, who turns out to be Madame De Barr, a chemist of that town who some years later died under suspicion of being poisoned.
There is no indication that the wizard visited Sydney as previously stated. In 1865, a “Herr De Barr” appeared in Adelaide, South Australia, with a troupe of Court Minstrels, but there is little likelihood of any connection between the gentleman conjuror and his namesake.
Other references to Philippe De Barr
Throughout, I have used the spelling ‘Philippe De Barr’ as this appears in his own advertising. However, other newspaper advertisements spell the name ‘Phillippe’.
From "My Magic Life" by David Devant
“Professor Charles Field, another veteran, had a stall in the Royal Aquarium. He was born in 1835, and continued to conjure until he was 73 years of age. Then there was De Caston, a Frenchman; a couple called the Stacey Brothers, who imitated the Davenport Brothers; and the two Duprez, one of whom appeared at the Piccadilly Hall, London, in 1888. There were Courtois, Philip Debar, and Heymann, also Nicholay - all competent performers.”
The Annals of Conjuring (Sidney Wrangel Clarke) – [referring to French performers] – “Courtois, a Belgian, and Philip Debar and Haymann, both Frenchmen, were other well-known performers.”
Secrets of Conjuring and Magic [translated by Louis Hoffmann from ‘Les Secrets de la Prestidigitation et de la Magie’, published by Robert-Houdin in 1868] in the chapter "Conjuring and its Professors":- "In other countries, the representatives of the magic art are Anderson, Bamberg, Philip Debar, Herrmann, Jacob, Lynn, Macalister, Rodolph, Colonel Stodare and Vell."