Madame Cora & the Davenports: 3 photographs

15 Aug

My last entry makes me think now of three photographs I looked at in Sydney’s Mitchell Library last Friday. They were taken by a studio photographer in the ‘golden city’ of Ballarat, Victoria, 1875-6 (well, there wasn’t any other kind of photographer then, of course). And they depict stage magicians of the day: Ira and William Davenport, the American conjuror-spiritualists, and more intriguingly, a woman known as ‘Madame Cora, magicienne’.

In that last entry, I wrote about the bewildering rapidity of cultural change in Australian goldfields towns between the 1850s and 1880s. What happened to the plebeian excess evident on goldtown streets, I wondered? The Mitchell photographs suggest that what happened there was also happening throughout Anglo culture – this being the development of ‘emergent culture industries’ such as the music hall and theatre. From the 1870s, popular culture still answered to the ‘ritual promptings of an indigenous custom, old and newly forged’ (so historian Peter Bailey tells us). It retained ‘a populist address akin to the pseudo-gemeinschaft of the publican and the prostitute’. But it melded these with ‘the slicker formulations of mass or middlebrow commercial confection’, and much of it played out in purpose-built venues rather than on the streets.

The setting of the Ballarat photographs is suggestive of these developments. In each, the magician / magicienne leans against a classical balustrade, or else on an ornately-carved bureau, staring serenely to one side. The Davenports are dressed in formal attire: a double-breasted coat in William’s case, and a three-piece suit in Ira’s. Australian newspaper reports of the brothers similarly played up their gentlemanly appearance, as if this was sufficiently novel to draw comment (or sufficiently important to their audiences to require note). But of course these people came from a performance tradition which had seen more roisterous days. They grew up on performances in public halls, fairs, sideshows, and on the street. The memory of those days, and the performances practices that came with them, would have been present, and at times deliberately invoked, in their shows. And even if there was a shift away from street culture in the Creswicks of the 1870-80s, it could not have meant the wholesale disappearance of its forms.

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