Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805 – 1871) was a French magician and is widely considered the father of the modern style of conjuring – the style which involves different mechanical elements.
Jean Eugène Robert inherited his love for gears from his father who was a watchmaker. Parents wanted him to be a lawyer but he wanted to be a watchmaker.
There is a story of how young Jean became interested in magic. It happened in the middle of 1820s. Jean wanted to buy a copy of a two-volume set of books on clock making called Traité de l’horlogerie (Treatise on Clockmaking) written by Ferdinand Berthoud. But he had to save up for those books. Jean asked the bookseller to make him a favour and to put the books off to the side for him. When the boy came with money to buy those books the bookseller reached up to the appropriate shelf, grabbed two volumes of books, wrapped them and handed the package to the young man.
Happy Jean got home and opened the wrapping. But he found a two-volume set on magic called Scientific Amusements instead of the Berthoud books. Jean didn’t return the books. His curiosity got the best of him and he decided to read the books. So the young watchmaker learned the rudiments of magic from those crude volumes and started to practise some tricks. Magic became his pastime. Jean performed from time to time some tricks for people (even joined an amateur acting troupe).
He got married to the daughter of a Parisian watchmaker Jacques François Houdin in 1830. Jean hyphenated his own name to hers and became Robert-Houdin. After his marriage he moved to Paris and worked in his father-in-law’s wholesale shop.
I like how Sveta incorporated Jean’s connection with watchmaking and automatons. You can see a harlequin (with legs of a bird) jumping out as an automaton bird from the hat of the “raven Joker”. Cuckoo clocks (a variation of clocks with automaton birds) are clocks that strikes the hours with a sound like a common cuckoo’s call and typically has a mechanical cuckoo that emerges with each note.
One day walking through the streets of Paris Jean found a magic shop owned by Père (Papa) Roujol. He met fellow magicians in that place and had a chance to talk about conjuring. As a result Jean found interesting friends and due to them learned the details to many of the mechanical tricks of the time as well as how to improve them.
He started to build his own mechanical figures – automatons. His most acclaimed automaton was his writing and drawing figure. Also he made a lot of other automatons, like a singing bird, a dancer on a tightrope, an automaton doing the cups and balls (see the video below), etc. Also he performed at private parties.
You can see another meaningful detail in the right hand of the “raven Joker”. It is a combination of a singing bird automaton and a real bird in a cage – Jean used such birds for his magic shows (Robert-Houdin’s Portfolio trick – he got different items from a folder).
The income from the shop, his new inventions and friend’s help gave Jean enough money to experiment on new tricks using glass apparatus that would be free of trickery. He envisioned a stage that would be as elegant as the drawing rooms in which he was hired to perform. He also thought that a magician should be dressed as such by wearing traditional evening clothes (like a tailcoat on the “raven Joker”).
Robert-Houdin debuted with his 200 seat theatre Soirées Fantastiques in 1845. The first show wasn’t successful and Jean closed the theatre. But finally he decided do not give up. He renewed his theatre and with each performance he got better.
Now you know why this deck is called Fantastique 🙂
The poster is clickable
Reproduction rights owned by the State Library of Victoria
The video is dedicated to the DVD about Robert-Houdin