While circus acts go back to the midst of time, the circus as commercial entertainment dates to the opening decades of the nineteenth century. In Victorian England, the circus appealed across an otherwise class-divided society, its audiences ranging from poor peddlers to prestigious public figures. The acts that attracted such audiences included reenacted battle scenes, which reinforced patriotic identity; exotic animal displays that demonstrated the reach of Britain’s growing empire; female acrobatics, which disclosed anxieties about women’s changing role in the public sphere; and clowning, which spoke to popular understandings of these poor players’ melancholy lives on the margins of society.
The proprietor and showman George Sanger (from whose collection the following photographs come) was a prime example of how the circus was to evolve from a small fairground-type enterprise to a large-scale exhibition. Sanger’s circuses began in the 1840s and ’50s, but by the 1880s, they had grown to such a scale that they were able to hold their own against the behemoth of P.T. Barnum’s three-ring circus, which arrived in London for the first time in that decade.
Like many circuses in the nineteenth century, Sanger’s was indebted to the technology of modern visual culture to promote his business. Local newspapers displayed photographs alongside advertisements to announce the imminent arrival of a circus troupe. Garish posters, plastered around towns, also featured photographs of their star attractions. And individual artists used photographic portraits, too (in the form of the carte-de-visite or calling card), to draw attention to their attributes and to seek employment. One striking image in this collection poses six performing acrobats amid the other acts—a lion tamer, an elephant trainer, a wire walker, and a clown—in one of Sanger’s circuses, all in front of the quintessential big-top tent. Maybe the projection of the collective solidarity of the circus in this image belies personal rivalries and animosities that might have characterized life on the road. Moreover, at the extreme edge of the image, on the right-hand side behind the dog trainer, there appears to be the almost ghostly presence of a Black male figure. By dint of their peripatetic existence, all those employed in the circus were often viewed as marginal and exotic. However, this image is a reminder of how racial and ethnic minorities were a presence within circus culture, even if, as here, they appear to have been banished to the margins of the photograph.
Victorian Studies, Vol. 49, No. 2, Papers and Responses from the Fourth Annual Conference of the North American Victorian Studies Association, Held Jointly with the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism Annual Meeting (Winter, 2007), pp. 384-386