Musical automaton "Levitation"

    Musical automaton "Levitation"

    France, Paris


    Henry Phalibois

    Mahogany, metal, fabric (silk, velvet, chiffon, cotton), papier-mâché, feathers; painting, embroidering, carpentry, mechanical work

    100 х 80 х 74 cm


    This musical automaton features an illusionist figure standing near a couch on which his female assistant is lying. The figures are mounted on a wooden rectangular stand with a top panel covered with embossed fringed fabric. The couch has carved legs and is covered with fringed red velvet. The illusionist has a movable head with glass eyes and moving eyelids and lower jaw; he is wearing a black suit, black shoes, light shirt with a bow tie and a double-breasted waistcoat. He holds a hoop and magic wand in movable hands. The girl has a papier-mâché head, red lips, blue glass eyes, moving eyelids, and walnut-coloured hair. Black velvet necklace is around her neck. A fan made from feathers with wooden handle is in her left hand. She is wearing an evening dress with silk wrap skirt of light olive colour with chiffon lining and a bodice of a darker fabric. The dress is trimmed with golden metallic thread and the belt with a metal thread pattern and buttons. A light brown crêpe shawl is around her shoulders. Satin slippers are on her feet.

    The control mechanism with nine cams made of boxwood and the musical movement with pinned cylinder, sound comb and spring escapement are mounted in the stand. The winding crank is on the right lateral surface and the start/stop lever is on the top panel.

    When the mechanisms are activated, the illusionist turns and tilts his head, blinks and moves his mouth as if speaking to his assistant who gently lowers her eyelids and falls into trance. 

    He directs his wand to her, she rises slowly as though suspended aloft, and then he passes the hoop around her body, showing the absence of support. In a few seconds, the girl’s figure descends onto the couch; she opens her eyes and fans herself as if unaware of what has happened.

    The creation of the Levitation automaton could be inspired by the stage illusion of The Princess Karnack Levitation performed by the American magician Harry Kellar. He was often called the Dean of American Magicians; he actively performed on the stages of five continents. One of his most memorable onstage illusions was the girl's levitation. He misrepresented the girl as the Indian princess, and the illusion itself was cloned from the illusion invented by John Nevil Maskelyne, which he demonstrated in the Egyptian Hall at Piccadilly in 1900.

    Harry Keller was eager to acquire this illusion for his shows immediately after Maskelyne’s premiere, but the latter refused to sell it. Keller then hired Paul Valadon, who worked for Maskelyne as the specialist in mechanics to find out the secret, and he released his own version with the help of the Otis Elevator Company. John Northern Hilliard, the author of “The Buffalo” book, wrote that levitation was a 20th-century miracle and “the main achievement of Mr. Keller’s long and brilliant career”.