Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Colonel Stodare - The Summoner of the Sphinx

The hall was in darkness, the stage dimly lit. Colonel Stodare, a study in black and white in his formal evening suit, a spare and austere figure with a pale, whittled face, held up one hand and waited. The murmurs amongst the audience soon died down. In a soft voice, so that his listeners had to crane to hear, he announced that this was his 200th performance at the Egyptian Hall. He gestured around the walls, which were carved with scrolled columns and decorated with hieroglyphics.

In honour of the occasion, the Colonel went on, it seemed to him appropriate to invite into the Hall the greatest of the many mysteries of Egypt, the very symbol of that ancient land. Tonight, ladies and gentleman, he announced, his gentle voice rising almost to an invocation, we shall summon the Sphinx. As he snapped his fingers in the air, the stage was plunged momentarily into darkness. When the lights rose again, the audience saw, residing upon a small table, the disembodied face of that enigmatic being, guardian of the Pyramids, impassive oracle, dangerous enchanter, the Sphinx.

There were incredulous gasps. Even the cynical, who had come to the performance merely for a lively diversion, were shocked. Before their gaze the living Sphinx appeared, its forehead and cheeks draped in the headdress of the divine Pharaohs. It was contained in a square casket: yet the table where it rested was hollow beneath: all of its elegant curved legs could be seen. Below the head, there was nothing. Was it simply some cunning mask or sculpture?

And then the Sphinx spoke. The eyes glinted. The lips in the unearthly face moved. They uttered some lines of sibylline poetry, impressive and sonorous. But the audience barely attended to what it said. They were so completely astonished that the head had spoken that they seemed united in one vast indrawn breath, soon followed by an excited hubbub and bursts of applause.

The lean form of Colonel Stodare retained his cool poise, with a slightly weary air, as if summoning the Sphinx was a matter of no great moment. He held up a hand once more and the consternation subsided a little. “We shall ask the Sphinx to share some of its secrets,” he said. And he proceeded to question the head that glimmered beside him on the table, just as if he were having a conversation with some worldly sage, some well-informed friend in his club. What he asked, and what were the answers, are alas not recorded.

After the audience had heard the solemn responses from the Sphinx, and watched transfixed its clay lips moving and its dark eyes opening and closing, the stark figure on the stage remained silent for a few more moments. “It is dangerous to invoke the Sphinx, ladies and gentlemen, honoured guests,” he announced. “I put myself in peril gladly, to demonstrate to you tonight the infinite mysteries of the East, the strange secrets of Egypt. But I must not put you in peril also. It is time the Sphinx was banished.”

Then Colonel Stodare uttered a single incomprehensible word, which might have been some magical formula. And with that last word, he raised his arm impressively in a great sweeping arc. He stepped forward and closed the lid and sides of the casket. The lights flickered briefly once again. The box was opened: the head of the Sphinx had gone.

The Colonel stooped with a quiet grace and placed his hand in the empty space where the Sphinx had been. He straightened and turned to the audience. “Ashes,” he murmured, and let fall from his fingers a few fragile flakes. As they drifted away, the Egyptian Hall erupted into a surge of acclaim such as it had never heard before. The dark and rather melancholy figure on the stage bowed his head.

The Sphinx Illusion was performed at the Egyptian Hall for the first time on October 16th 1865. The summoner of the Sphinx himself remains a man of some mysteries. He was probably born Joseph Stoddart on 28 June, 1831 in Liverpool, although other origins, names and dates of birth have been proposed for him. “Colonel Stodare” was his stage name: he is not known to have held military rank, and he probably thought “Stodare” had a slightly more exotic and dignified air to it than his original name.

He had toured provincial theatres, and published a handbook of magic in 1862. He gave his first performance at the Egyptian Hall in April, 1865, using some illusions of his own devising, and was soon one of the venue’s most popular attractions. The Sphinx Illusion, considered his masterpiece, was not in fact his own invention. It had been developed by Thomas Tobin, a scientist and engineer who had also conjured up the Cabinet of Proteus, the Oracle of Delphi, and, most daring of all, the Palingenesia, in which a volunteer from the audience was dissected on stage and then returned whole.

Colonel Stodare’s brief career was so successful that he was commanded to appear before Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in the November of that year of the Sphinx. Alas, he was not to enjoy the fruits of his fame for very much longer. Always in delicate health, he died on 22 October, 1866 in London of consumption. He is buried at Highgate Cemetery. For a while his widow and brother carried on his act, with the aid of some of his apprentices and assistants.

It is in the nature of stage performances that they are transitory and survive only as long as the memories of those that saw them. But Colonel Stodare’s Sphinx Illusion lived longer than most, for few who saw it forgot the effect of that strange head of myth speaking to them from out of a casket, uttering its omens and riddles. And it has passed into the history of magic as a major new illusion.

What, you want to know how the Colonel did it? Well: "The conjurer demonstrates that things are not always what they seem. Therein lies his philosophy," the Colonel himself said. Suffice to say, that like many of the best magical tricks, what the Colonel achieved in summoning the Sphinx onto the stage, and tantalising our persistent quest for mystery, holds up a mirror to ourselves.

© Mark Valentine, 2016


  1. Highly evocative description, Mark. I do think the head of the sphinx in the photograph lacks a certain grandeur. But doubtless, as you suggest, the Colonel carefully built up the air of mystery. While I've read about the Egyptian Hall--first in John Dickson Carr's "The Three Coffins"and later in a history of Egyptmania--I would love to have actually experienced the eerie glamour of the place.--md

  2. Your storytelling is even more wonderful than usual here, Mark. Those seeking more Victorian Egyptomania might try Roger Luckhurst's The Mummy's Curse, a wide-ranging history of how Egyptian stories took root in British culture.