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250 years of circus history rolls into Sheffield 1

a black and white photo of a female clown with a set of bagpipes

Photograph of Lulu Adams, 1940s by permission of The University of Sheffield Library, National Fairground and Circus Archive

Weston Park Museum in Sheffield welcomes Circus! Show of Shows, celebrating 250 years of an enduring art form

In 1768 in London Phillip Astley unveiled a show, which for the very first time, combined equestrianism, clowning, rope walking and acrobatics within a now iconic circular ring. This ground-breaking performance marked the birth of a global phenomenon that we now know as the circus.

Astley didn’t coin the phrase ‘circus’ – one of his keen competitors did that – but he was the first to combine comedy with equestrian and acrobatic expertise. And as well as figuring out that the ideal size for a circus ring is 42 feet, he was also the first to build a roof over the entire arena so that his audiences could enjoy his evening amusements in all weathers – a formula that developed into the big top circuses that thrive today.

Two hundred and fifty years later, circus may have evolved – most recently in response to the growing concerns for animal welfare – but the form continues to amaze and astound, showcasing the talents of legions of impossibly skilled performers across the world.

Museums Sheffield’s exhibition exploring this global phenomenon is part of Circus 250, a UK-wide celebration marking the 250th anniversary of this enduring art form, and it is filled with a suitably dazzling array of costumes, props, rare historic posters, artworks, films and archive photographs.

A painting of a trapeze artists seen below the orange dome of a cricus tent

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas. Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. © The National Gallery, London. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1925.

a Victorian poster depicting the various acts in a circus

Bostock and Wombwell’s world renowned menagerie, 1880s by permission of The University of Sheffield Library National Fairground and Circus Archive.

As well as loans from major collections across the world, many of the objects and ephemera have been drawn from the University of Sheffield Library’s National Fairground and Circus Archive, which covers every aspect of the travelling fair, circus and related entertainments from fairgrounds and circuses to sideshows, magic and amusement parks.

The exhibition also offers the chance to see one of the most beautiful and famous circus paintings in the world.

Edgar Degas’ Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, on loan from The National Gallery, is a breath-taking depiction of the acclaimed turn of the century aerialist, suspended over 200 feet in the air from the rafters of the circus dome by a rope clenched between her teeth.

One of the most revered circus performers of her time, Miss La La appeared before rapturous crowds in both London and Paris during the late 1800s and it was in Paris, at the Cirque Fernando in Montmartre, where she was painted by Degas.

For Circus! Show of Shows, the painting is accompanied by a film of a spectacular new performance created by contemporary circus performer and aerialist, Blaze Tarsha, in response to the Degas work.

a poster with the face of a woman with a green tinge

Koringa, Bertram Mills circus programme 1939 Copyright University of Sheffield Library, National Fairground and Circus Archive

a black and white photo of a woman with curly hair and a cross of Lorraine tattoo on her forehead

Photograph of Koringa, 1940s by permission of University of Sheffield Library, National Fairground and Circus Archive

The hidden histories of women in circus and black circus artists, and Sheffield’s own circus heritage accompany these spectacular works in a show that co-curator Professor Vanessa Toulmin says “illustrates the inclusiveness, innovation and spectacle of circus and celebrates the people behind this truly ground-breaking British-born art form.”

Toulmin, who is known as ‘Professor Vanessa’, is the Chair of Early Film and Popular Entertainment in the University of Sheffield’s School of English, and is renowned for organising circus festivals – including Professor Vanessa’s Wondershow at Circusfest Roundhouse in 2012 and Showzam: Blackpool’s Festival of Circus Magic. She is one of the world’s leading experts on travelling shows and the people who worked in them.

One of those people is Lulu Adams, who was born into a circus family in 1900 and became one of the earliest female clowns to appear in some of the most renowned circuses of the twentieth century.

“As well as being an accomplished charmer of snakes and crocodiles Koringa was a member of the French Free Forces performing secret missions in World War II”

In a career spanning 62 years, Lulu worked all over the world – from the Barnum and Bailey Circus in the U.S.A. to Tom Arnold’s Christmas Circus at Harringay and, apart from her many circus skills, she is best remembered for her bagpipes, which she deftly combined with expert clowning and acrobatics.

Another famous female circus performer is Koringa (1913-1976), who was billed as the “Only Female Fakir in the World.” Her publicity cast her as an ‘exotic’ performer-magician from Bikanir in India, but she was Born Renée Bernard in Bordeaux, France where she was discovered by the Mills Brothers for whom she performed at the Blackpool Tower Circus in the late 1930s.

As well as being an accomplished magician, dancer, charmer of snakes, crocodiles and other wild animals, Koringa’s biography includes a period as a member of the French Free Forces performing secret missions in World War II. She is sometimes pictured in the 1940s wearing the Free French Cross of Lorraine.

a painting of woman on a horse in a circus big top

Elsie on Hassan by Laura Knight, 1929-30 by permission of Nottingham City Museums & Galleries

a drawing of a woman in circus outfit with a large male lion

Lady and the Lion from Les Roux Cirque et la vie Foraine, published in 1889. Image by permission of The University of Sheffield.

Archive material illustrating these and other circus careers is accompanied by original circus costumes and props including the elaborate pair of late 19th century acrobat trunks worn by foot-juggler Edwin Moxon and the trapeze and costume made and used in the 1990s by Becky Truman, who was just 21 when she established her all-women trapeze company in Bradford.

Also on show is a female equestrian ballerina costume, a Ringmasters uniform and a boy’s clown costume from the Billy Smart Circus, which was the first circus to be broadcast live on television in 1947.

Historical specimens from Sheffield’s Natural Science collection acquired from the many circuses and travelling menageries which visited the city in the late 19th and early 20th century, help to explore how public opinion of using animals in performance changed.

Among them is the rearticulated skeleton of a camel which was originally part of Day’s Menagerie in the late 1800s, a mountain lion from Wombwell’s Menagerie, and a bonobo chimpanzee, which performed in the Bostock’s Jungle Chimps Tea Party, a phenomenon which endured well into the 1970s with the PG Tips Chimps TV adverts.

Here the specimens are accompanied by posters used by activists to protest the treatment of animals in circuses – all part of circus’ rich and varied history, as well as the highs, the lows and the hidden stories of the circus and how it relates to the popular culture of Britain.

a photo of a stuffed chimp

Bonobo from Bostock’s Jungle, 1910. Copyright Museums Sheffield

The Circus! Show of Shows is at Weston Park Museum from July 25 – November 4 2018 and continues in October at the Time and Tide Museum of Great Yarmouth Life and at the Discovery Museum, Newcastle in 2019.

The exhibitions have been developed through a partnership between Museums Sheffield, Norfolk Museums Service, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and The University of Sheffield Library National Fairground and Circus Archive with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.


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