With the British circus celebrating its 250th anniversary, Sarah Freeman meets the Yorkshire-born photographer giving audiences a glimpse behind the scenes of the Big Top.
In January, 1768, on an abandoned patch of wasteland near London’s Waterloo, showman and entrepreneur Philip Astley quietly made history. Gathering together a group of jugglers, acrobats, clowns and bareback riders, that winter’s day the curtain was raised on the very first circus anywhere in the world. No one recorded how many were in that very first audience, but as word spread the numbers grew and Astley quickly realised he had a hit on his hands.
Where he led, others followed and some 200 years later a young Yorkshire photographer stumbled inside Jolly’s Mini Circus. For Peter Lavery, it was an afternoon that would prove both life changing and career defining.
“I had taken one or two pictures of circuses before,” says Lavery, who studied at the Royal College of Art. “But that day in 1968 when I happened to walk past Queens Hall in Leeds was the start of something special.
“As a child I had never been particularly mad keen on circuses, but there was something about being backstage that I found fascinating. It was that clash between the showiness of their costumes and the very ordinary surroundings.
“It’s a largely nomadic community and I loved the fact that they turn up somewhere new and have to create a theatrical spectacle against a backdrop of trailers and tents which isn’t very glamorous at all.
“I was completely captivated by the sounds and the smells, but I had no idea that the subject would capture my imagination for the best part of five decades.”
Lavery’s book Circus Work, which came out in 1993, was heralded as one of the most important collections focusing on this distinct community ever produced. For some, the accolade might have provided a neat full stop to the project which had begun entirely by accident.
However, Lavery’s fascination with the big top has never waned and to mark both the 250th anniversary of the circus and his own 50 years of taking pictures of it, he’s about to publish another book which will be complemented by an exhibition.
Taken in both black and white and colour, his intimate, large-scale portraits show trapeze artists, jugglers, contortionists and clowns relaxing off-duty or waiting in the wings.
Given the subject matter, it is perhaps unsurprisingly an eclectic collection. There’s one of the Gifford Circus performers captured holding a chicken which had been specially trained for its role in a show called Any Port in a Storm. Another shows one of the members of the Moscow State Circus in the 1980s emerging from his bear suit. Most poignant of all though are the clowns waiting for the arrival of crowds as night falls at the City of Manchester Stadium.
“I was an outsider and I wasn’t even a fan of circuses so I did have to win their trust,” says Lavery. “When I first approached Gerry Cottle he wasn’t altogether sure that he even wanted me backstage, but when he saw the kind of images I wanted to produce he warmed to the idea.
“Some people though weren’t happy. There was one performer who told me that what I was taking was reality and they were about illusion. I told them that was the point, but I think she thought that somehow it was breaking the spell.”
Revisiting the circus over the intervening years, Lavery has witnessed a staple of Great British entertainment ride the peaks and troughs of fashion. When public taste moved away from those circus that used animals, it was forced to reinvent itself, but having watched its evolution up close, Lavery is convinced it still has a future in the 21st century.
“They have been through some tough times and entertainment is subject to fashion, but returning for this latest collection I didn’t get the impression that this is a way of life which is dying out,” he says. “It’s true that 20 years ago some circuses had become a bit seedy, but in the last decade or so there has in fact been a bit of a renaissance for those traditional outfits which pull into a town or city with their painted wagons.”
In his own nod to tradition, when photographing circuses Lavery eschews the ease of digital cameras, instead preferring large film format. “I use film classed as out of date, but even so it’s expensive stuff,” he says. “Every single picture costs £8, so it’s an approach which has its limitations, but also brings huge benefits. Because you know you can’t rattle off a dozen pictures, it forces you to concentrate and makes you very aware of your surroundings.”
Lavery, who has won numerous awards for both his editorial and commercial work, was born in Wakefield and grew up watching his father graft at a nearby mine.
“Dad worked at the coal face of Park Hill pit,” he says. “Back then there was an expectation in some quarters that if you came from a mining family that’s where your own future lay. I remember when I went to the careers teacher and he simply said: ‘I suppose you will be getting a job down the mine’.
“It was funny because until then it had never entered my head that I would follow in his footsteps. Both our parents wanted to do the best for myself and my brother and it was always a case of ‘just follow your dreams’.”
Lavery’s first camera was like so many other boys of his age a Box Brownie and he could often be found wandering along the banks of the Calder taking photos of the barges which were moored close to where The Hepworth Gallery now stands.
However, while he enjoyed taking photographs, when he applied to Wakefield Art College it was initially to study ceramics. A quick change of course eventually took him to the Royal College of Art and the rest as they say is history.
“Quite early on in my career Bruce Bernard, the now legendary picture editor of the Sunday Times magazine, told me that no one could take a great picture of the circus.
“He meant I think that they all tended to blur into one. However, when he saw some of my images he later told me that he reckoned that I would be ‘wedded to the circus for the rest of my life’. He was right, but I keep going back because I always find something new to photograph.”
As part of Circus250, images from Peter Lavery’s Circus Work are being exhibited at the Harley Gallery on the Welbeck Estate near Worksop until April 15. harleygallery.co.uk