Papyrological prestidigitation

William Hartston rediscovers the art of lightning paper-folding, as performed by Mr David Devant to appreciative audiences in the Victorian music hall
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Perhaps no more entertaining form of indoor pastime has ever been devised than the rapid folding of a sheet of pleated paper into various shapes. That, at any rate, was the expressed opinion of a writer in The Strand magazine in 1896 as he praised the performance of Mr David Devant, "the well-known prestidigitateur and popular entertainer" who "electrified the audience" at the Egyptian Hall with his dexterous displays of paper- folding. From one folded piece of paper, he constructed 40 different designs in five minutes; "his record is 10 in 30 seconds".

A hundred years earlier, the same pastime was known as "Trouble-wit", though until you have acquired the necessary dexterity, it seems to be more trouble than wit. You start with a single sheet of paper. The magazine advises beginning with a sheet of notepaper, then working up to a great square of stout cartridge. For some of the objects illustrated, you will need something the size of a double page of this newspaper.

The first folds are double pleats of the sides to a point close to the centre. Start by folding one edge at about a third of the way along the top, then folding back on itself to meet its new edge. Then do the same with the other side. This should leave two vertical pleats, with a small gap between them.

Now you can get on with the pleating, working your way down the sheet in concertina fashion, with the folds about half-an-inch apart. "The proper folding of the paper in the first instance is an absolute condition sine qua non." You end up with what looks like a Venetian blind, but has two concealed folds on each side.

"Never, by any chance, let the audience see the back of the paper," we are advised. "The fact is that spectators are led to believe that it is a plain sheet of pleated paper, which it is not." All the tricks come from easing out one, two, three or all of the hidden folds. The first picture above shows the basic arrangement, with all four folds eased out and ready for the pleats to be fanned out in various ways.

"While there are no definite rules governing the manipulator's dress, the unwritten law of professional demeanour compels him to wear at least a worried look. He should bound hither and thither, wave the paper up and down, round and round, and generally convey the impression that the whole business is a severe strain upon him." The right aspect to assume is one of "flirtatious archness".

Apart from the objects illustrated above, Mr Devant's repertoire included a rosette, a table-mat, a settee, a flower-holder, a lampshade, a saucepan, a cosy corner, a garden seat and a sentry-box. The dumb-bell, incidentally, "by a little judicious manipulation on the part of the operator", can be made to do duty as the paddle-wheel of a Thames steamer. It is very important, however, not to show the audience the oriental water jar until some time after the lamp-shade has been presented for their approbation. Because it's the same thing upside down.

And do not forget, when trying on the Dutch girl's bonnet, to heighten the effect by executing a "well-simulated simper". Expression, we are told, is everything, but we are warned to beware of overstepping the mark: "Take heed, we say, lest in straining after adventitious effect you excite perversely the risibility of your audience."

If you want to do some 20th-century paper-folding, on the other hand, contact the British Origami Society (The Membership Secretary, 2A The Chestnuts, Countesthorpe, Leicester LE8 5TL). Membership costs pounds 17 a year (pounds 12.50 for students).

They can also sell you a copy of COET 91 - the proceedings of the first international Convention on Origami in Education and Therapy, "perhaps the most important origami book in the last 10 years" - and without any adventitious straining.