Yorkshire museum juggles 250 years of stories from the circus

PICS: Simon Hulme
PICS: Simon Hulme
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A new exhibition has opened in Sheffield celebrating the 250th anniversary of the first circus. Stephen McClarence rolls up to take a look at what’s on show.

Professor Vanessa Toulmin is looking uncharacteristically worried. “We need to get more than one red nose in,” she says. “The children are fighting over it.” Across at the dressing-up box, a minor skirmish is brewing over the clown costumes and the 
kids are shrieking with delight. Very loudly. This is pretty unusual in a museum – but 
then, Circus! Show of Shows is an unusual exhibition.

Part of Circus 250, a UK-wide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the first circus, it’s a vivid, engaging glimpse of a world of colour, bizarre novelty, reckless daring, astonishing skill and wholesale escapism.

A world, pioneered in Britain, of Zazel the Human Cannonball, Rigoletto the Renowned Educated Mule and Koringa, an alarming wild-haired “female fakir”. Regularly buried in a snake-infested sandpit, she also performed with crocodiles (the biggest of them called Churchill).

It’s a world once, as an advertisement promised, “enlivened by the snake-like contortions of the multiform mortal called Ki-Soi-Chin-Foo”; in which Alar the Human Arrow (“a living weapon”) was shot from a giant crossbow and caught by her sister, merrily swinging from a trapeze.

The stunt is unlikely to be recreated in the “family fun” scheduled over the exhibition’s run. There’s plenty of that, but the red noses, the face-painting, the “interactive family discovery days” and the chance to learn circus skills shouldn’t distract from the solid academic research that’s gone into the exhibition, at Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum.

With a linked programme of lectures and discussions, it looks at some of the issues that have lurked round the edges of this world-apart – the role of women and black performers, the controversies about performing animals, the changing nature of circus itself.

The 30 circus companies doing the rounds in Britain today are very different from companies of the past like the celebrated Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth. Based in the US, it toured 300 venues around Britain, packing up at the end of the show and loading all its gear onto a train with up to 70 carriages that trundled it to the next town.

The show once played to 15,000 people in Sheffield, with four zebras, 18 camels, 20 elephants, 430 horses and 840 variously skilled humans.

It included a street parade led, 
posters proclaimed, “by a team 
of 40 matched horses and followed by the gorgeous spectacle of the return of Columbus to Barcelona”.

The exhibition, backed by a £98,000 National Lottery grant, is the brainchild of Professor Vanessa Toulmin, a leading circus expert from the University of Sheffield’s School of English.

“What drew me to circus was the idea of impossible skills performed purely for the delight and amazement of the public,” says Toulmin, founder of the Sheffield-based National Fairground and Circus Archive, which houses Britain’s largest circus collection and has supplied many of the exhibits.

“The idea that someone trains all their life to do an eight-minute act is incredible. But people sometimes have the idea that circus is just about a ringmaster in a tent. That’s like thinking theatre is just about Shakespeare or jazz is just about New Orleans.”

Toulmin has been familiar with circuses all her life. Born into a Morecambe fairground family, she spun candy floss (still can) and her Auntie Brenda was a contortionist and dancer at the Moulin Rouge. Unfailingly feisty, she tours me round the exhibition, dodging the children (ear plugs are recommended for the sensitive).

We see a Victorian poster for a Buffalo Bull Wild West show, with Red Indians tumbling all over the place and a cast including Buffalo Frisco (“Surnamed by his tribe ‘The Fireball of Peace and Vengeance’”).

We see a display about Lord George Sanger, a flamboyant 19th century circus owner who married Ellen Chapman, a lion tamer who led processions dressed as Britannia and was the first woman to put her head in a lion’s mouth.

Not everyone was amused by such animal antics. The Performing and Captive Animals’ Defence League campaigned for a ban on performing animals in circuses and music halls. Its 1925 poster proclaimed – in blood-red letters – “Boycott the Circus – It’s Cruel.”

A 1954 advert showing 12 polar bears in Billy Smart’s Circus sitting quiescently on a pyramid of platforms may still send a shudder through some exhibition visitors.

And it’s hard not to be saddened by pictures of lions and tigers perched demurely on stools and a display of stuffed circus animals that died in Sheffield while being exhibited by touring circuses. The display includes Pat, a bonobo (a species of chimpanzee) who was dressed up for chimps’ tea parties. “Doesn’t he have sad eyes?” a woman says to a small girl gazing at the animal in puzzlement.

I press Toulmin for her own opinion of the way circuses have used animals. “We reflect that some aspects of animal performance now look anachronistic,” she says, maintaining her academic detachment. She does, however, say that she first saw a circus when she was two years old and “I cried when I saw the elephants; I didn’t like to see them in the ring.”

The exhibition, one of three with circus themes that Toulmin is co-curating across the country this year, isn’t all controversy, however. There’s a pair of vintage trunks worn by a foot juggler, giant clown boots and spangly costumes. The greatest coup is perhaps the loan from the National Gallery of one of the most famous circus pictures – Degas’s Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando.

Miss La La? A late 19th century acrobat and aerial “iron-jaw” performer – mixed-race and French – who was suspended 200 feet in the air from circus rafters by a rope clenched between her teeth. Her most famous stunt was to hang upside down from a trapeze with her jaw supporting a 150lb cannon dangling on a rope – the cannon was then fired. Degas’s haunting, graceful image pictures her from below, seemingly flying: a sort of Peter Pan with stronger teeth.

The exhibition, co-curated by Teresa Whittaker from Museums Sheffield, also features Dame Laura Knight’s behind-the-scenes study of a rider on a dappled horse waiting to perform at a Blackpool circus. The rider was called Elsie, the horse Hassan: a neat encapsulation of circus’s fusion of the everyday and the exotic.

Part of the dinner service Knight designed for Clarice Cliff pottery in 1934 is also on show – with deftly sketched clowns, performing seals and dancing polar bears.

And there are playbills from Sheffield Libraries and Archives advertising shows – complete with vaulters and rope-dancers – mounted by the Victorian impresario Pablo Fanque, a mixed-race equestrian and circus owner who started out in life as William Darby from Norwich.

“Unequalled equilibrists!” the bills, with their charming woodcuts, promised. “Antepodean brothers! Polandric evolutions!!”. Plus the Elf of Mount Aetna “on his demon charger”, performers dancing polkas on horseback, and dwarf ponies “bred in the Royal Stables of the King of Ava, in the Burman Empire”.

Fanque’s troupe included William Kite, a riding master and tightrope walker mentioned on a playbill which inspired the Beatles’ Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite. And also Mr Kite’s, a now closed but fondly remembered Sheffield wine bar.

Bring on the red noses! And, oh yes, roll up!

Circus! Show of Shows is at Weston Park Museum, Western Bank, Sheffield. (www.museums-sheffield.org.uk) until November 4. Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm; Sunday, 11am to 4pm. Free entry.