Entertainment in the hallowed hallways of the British Library

The British Library is one of the world's greatest national libraries, home to items from every age of written civilisation totalling in excess of 150 million objects.

Within that number there is an extraordinary variety of treasure from an 8th century gospel to the original manuscript of Handel's Messiah by way of a Leonardo da Vinci notebook.

It might be assumed that this hallowed, august building might be a bit stuffy and only of interest to researchers, brainiacs and academics but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

The current exhibition, Victorian Entertainments: There Will Be Fun, is an example in point.

It not only provides an insight into entertainment in nineteenth century England through exhibits, it also offers a little taste of the real thing with live performances of some re–worked sketches from the canon of the five entertainers around which the exhibition is based.

‘Royal Conjuror’ Henry Evans Evanion is one of the five and the Evanion collection is at the core the of exhibition.

Assembled throughout his life, there are some six thousand items of Victorian printed ephemera in this collection which he sold to the British Museum.

Exhibition co–curator is Olivier Award-winning Christopher Green; he is a writer, performer and a trained hypnotherapist. Amongst his performing characters is a personal favourite of mine, country music singer, Tina C.

I meet with Green at the British Library and he explains: "Evanion was a middle-ranking magician but he performed for royalty and from that point on he called himself the 'Royal Conjuror'!

"But he was very much a jobbing magician, he only just made a living from it, and that is one of the focuses of this exhibition—the real life of being a performer.

"He was also an obsessive collector but, because [the collection] was 'ephemera', it was considered virtually worthless and had stayed in boxes for decades."

In fact There Will Be Fun sees posters, handbills, advertisements and tickets from the Evanion Collection on public display for the first time. They were originally made to be thrown away so some of the items are both rare and valuable.

Green draws my attention to a poster publicising a show of mesmerist Annie De Montford. It is black and white and looks very unassuming in comparison to the larger, colour posters alongside it.

Green again: "Annie De Montfort is the one closest to my heart because I discovered her in the archives when I was researching my book and doing my artist in residence here.

"She was forgotten by history because she was a woman and because she was middle-ranking.

"She was ahead of her time though. I think it was unusual that she was a woman [mesmerist]; it doesn't fit with the narrative, if you say 'hypnotist' you just don't think of a woman. I was intrigued by her—even now there are hardly any female hypnotists.

"One of her phrases was 'Mind Governs the World'. A huge claim and a very modern notion for a woman in 1880 to be saying you have control over who you are."

And Annie De Montfort manifested that belief. Born into poverty as Annie Riley, the daughter of a Leicester mill worker, she was initially a phrenologist, then an electro–biologist and finally she became a mesmerist.

She took the name of the local wealthy family and she made a good deal of money but, as Green told me, like a lot of performers of the period, she died young from overwork and a hard life.