Kory Rogers, head curator at Shelburne Museum discusses a few of the aspects of the upcoming exhibition, Papering the Town: Circus Posters in America, on view July 9, 2016 – January 22, 2017 in the Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education. The exhibition features historic circus posters from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in all variations of scale, color, and imagery.
Q: What are your thoughts on the exhibit?
For me it’s very exciting, for the first time in my thirteen years at the Museum, I am able to see these really large circus posters out on display. We’ve never had that ability to do that, but with the Pizzagalli Center galleries, we have enough space to display these enormous posters. I’m finally able to pull these works of art out of their drawers so people can finally see them. The really amazing thing about this show is that some of these posters are really old. One of them is 181 years old! Another one is about 173 years old. They are just paper and they were never intended to last, but for some reason and somehow, someone saved these posters, because they appreciated them as works of art. I’m so grateful they survived.
Q: Do you know who and how these posters were created and marketed?
K: There were printers like James Reilly, a man named Bacon, another named Bell, and one more named Russell Morgan. They were typically in large cities, using state of the art technology like steam-powered roller presses. The larger posters tended to be made using carved wood blocks, due to the difficulty of producing large posters with lithograph stones. These men were vendors, and they worked for every type of business that needed printing, but circuses were probably their biggest customers. Each of these posters was probably printed in the tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands. It was usual for a circus to come into town and just paper over the entire city. It was pretty extraordinary.
Q: What is your favorite poster?
K: I would have to say it would be the poster of Isaac Van Amburgh, the cat trainer. He was really a pioneer of animal training in the United States.
Although he was not a kind or gentle man when it came to the animals, he was very brave. He would do things like dip his arm into animal blood and stick it down the throat of an angry lion. He would even stick his head between the jaws of a tiger. As far as we know, outside of a woman in the sixteenth century, he’s the first person to really attempt this.
He always dressed himself in gladiatorial costumes, because he wanted to draw parallels between what he was doing and biblical verses. He wanted to win over Christians, because at that time circuses and menageries were considered sinful distractions. Isaac Van Amburgh tried appeal to them by recreating scenes from the bible where he would sleep amongst the wild beasts. He would bring in a little lamb and a nine year old boy into the lion’s den, alluding to the biblical verse where the lion the lamb and the child would all lie down together.
Later when he was touring England, where he was not well received by the intellectual class who thought he was a low-brow entertainer, he was harshly and publically people like criticized. One of his detractors attempted to undermine him by revealing the secret of his most famous act. They exposed the fact that he raised the lion from a cub to be around baby lambs and children.
It is really important to stress that, although highly entertaining, circus acts were incredibly dangerous. It’s a dangerous trick to ride four galloping horses at one time! There was always an element of danger involved in the circus and that’s what thrilled audiences in the past. They could watch these people put their lives on the line as they performed extraordinary feats that otherwise would have gotten the average person killed!
Q: Which poster has the most interesting back story?
K: Mr.Sage’s because and there is not a lot known about it. It is an enigma. It was dated 1843, and was discovered in a trunk in Portugal. It was donated to the museum and very little information survives about this particular touring troupe. We don’t have any advertisements for this circus, besides this one. The only clue we have about this poster comes from a navy lieutenant’s report from the 1850s. He was on an expedition to Peru where he encountered an American man named Sage who reported to be the owner and proprietor of this circus. That is the only clue we have. What is important is that it provides us with clues about what early circuses looked like in America. They primarily contained the one thing that makes a circus, trained horse acts. Also human performers, such as clowns and acrobats and small animals like dogs. It wasn’t till after the Civil War that circuses became the multi stage shows and incorporated exotic animals.