The story begins “250 years ago, on an abandoned patch of land near London’s Waterloo, [when] showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley drew out a circle in the ground and filled it with astounding physical acts. This spectacle was the world’s very first circus. […] Every circus, anywhere, began at this moment in 1768.” (- Circus250)
To mark the 250th birthday of the circus last year, Circus250 was born. The community interest company encouraged artistic involvement from museums and galleries, theatres, libraries, schools and circuses across the UK and Ireland, with Six Cities of Circus named in particular. Housing the most circus companies, Bristol placed at the top of this list.
In addition to city-wide performances and events, Bristol’s oldest art gallery, The Royal West of England Academy (or RWA), displayed a celebratory exhibition: Sawdust and Sequins: The Art of The Circus.
As suggested by its duplicitous name, Sawdust and Sequins provides a complete and uncensored representation of the circus, from the glamour to the grind. Whilst many of the two-dimensional pieces lining the walls of the RWA’s grand, main hall are loud in colour and approaching the gaudy, a sincere respect for the circus’ own art is immediately apparent.
Painter and sculptor P. J. Crook comments that she “adore[s] the circus as a creative artform with its breathtaking and picturesque feats of daring…” (- RWA exhibition label). Taking the circus as her inspiration, Crook embarks upon her own feat of daring. ‘Capturing the Moon’ (2018) literally defies boundaries, spilling boldly onto its frame and embracing the rebellious spirit of the carnivalesque.
Whilst none of the contemporary artists featured in this first gallery room unrealistically idealise the circus world, Bristol-based artist Beth Carter, delves deeper and darker with great honesty. Appearing a number of times across the exhibition, Carter repeatedly focuses upon the problematic use of animals under the big top. A sadness is visible upon the faces of the many creatures who comprise her bronze sculpture, ‘Broken Carnival’ (2017). There is a sense of freedom implied by the captured motion, but each individual is broken and incomplete. Though not cyclically confined to a carousel, the twisted pole upon which the mess of man and horse exists suggests an unavoidable association with it.
In ‘Death at the Circus’ (c.2006) Carter’s subject lies dead in the centre of the frame. Composed of charcoal, a number of familiar circus characters circle the lion, but the dark-haired chimpanzee captures the eye. This animal’s face is full of judgement, and its hand seems to simultaneously defend a fallen friend and accuse the audience. The intent of the image is to acknowledge the inhumane “past treatment of animals” (- RWA exhibition label) which was historically celebrated, as the exhibition is about to confirm.
The second gallery of the exhibition is shrouded in darkness to preserve the aging artwork on display. Here, the history of the circus, lightly touched upon at the entrance, is continued.
After completing an active military service, the didactic wall panels explain, accomplished horse-rider Philip Astley opened a riding school on London’s South Bank in 1768. Here he and his wife entertained crowds with horseback performances. The equestrian roots of the circus led to decades of animal cruelty, which symbolically ended with the closure of the American Ringling Brothers Circus in 2017.
This collection within Sawdust & Sequins offers a glimpse into a time when mistreatment was still celebrated. Caged or working animals appear in the featured work of ash glaze fanatic, Eric James Mellon, modern-day Jack the Ripper suspect, Walter Sickert, his third wife Thérèse Lessore, Bloomsbury Set member Duncan Grant, and Laura Knight, the first fully-fledged female member of the Royal Academy. Without their comment, the artists’ opinions on performance animals can only be conjecture, but nothing within the frames stands out in suggestion of disapproval.
Moving chronologically around the room into the mid-century, the animals previously featured with neither concern nor attention disappear entirely. Firmly in the twentieth century, this new focus demonstrates the spirit of modernity: the circus is innovate, and risky, and undeniably human. In place of impressively exotic or obedient animals, highly disciplined people suddenly emerge as the sole subject.
Stewart J. Waghorn’s ‘Circus Scene’ (1954) for example, depicts a number of men erecting a circus tent. The focus is upon engineering and manpower – the painting is composed of intentional lines from the tent ropes to the square hands and lean muscles of the male figure in the foreground.
Celebrating the human-focus, the final two galleries exhibit Peter Lavery’s 50 Years of Circus Portraits. This collection of photographs provides a decades-long peek behind the curtain and into the lives of circus artists. The viewer is eased in with black, white, and sepia-toned portraits of fire breathers and sword swallowers caught before or after the show but still very much posing. The subjects in the first of these last two galleries exist in the 80s and 90s. Costumed and away from society they could be far earlier. The magic of their art is preserved in the lacking colour and passage of time.
Far less distant, however, are the portraits in Lavery’s second gallery and the final room of Sawdust & Sequins. The room is filled with vivid and gigantic snapshots of the very ordinary moments of people who have trained their bodies for extraordinary feats. Despite their thick stage makeup and slicked back hair, Lavery’s increasingly contemporary subjects are often captured in moments separated from their art. They are costumed, but without an audience within the context of the image, they are not performing. The images are so large, the definition so high, and the colour so strong that the dirt under their nails and the holes in their tights are impossible to ignore.
Rather than dispelling it, the inescapable realism of these colour portraits highlights the enduring magic of the circus: that the circus artists are intrinsically linked to their art. That they are human. In revealing their imperfections outside of the ring, their acts within it become more impressive, not less so. Their muscles stand more proudly in contrast to their occupational cuts and bruises. Their glamourous outfits are more alluring juxtaposed against the desolate landscapes. At the circus, the sequins sparkle more brightly because of the sawdust.
For the duration of June, The Circus of Horrors is here at Generally Gothic. Keep reading with an interview about historical found circus photography or the RWA’s Angela Carter exhibition.