Markets and Menageries, 1835

Common-Place, the wonderful digital journal published by the American Antiquarian Society and the University of Connecticut, launched a new redesign this summer. The journal invariably makes for good reading, and it reminded that some time back before I had even started this website, I wrote a short essay about one of the most spectacular pieces of show printing in the Society’s collection. The Zoological Institute was the mightiest entertainment conglomerate of its day and the image below hardly does their broadside justice so please check out the archived article for some great detail images.

American Antiquarian Society
American Antiquarian Society

An Aquatint of Lord William, a Horse

One of the things that I am packing up for the move across country is a fine print that I acquired at a garage sale here in Cheesman Park. It is an 1845 aquatint of a trotting horse named Lord William and a delightful example of the widely popular British sporting prints that were produced during the mid-nineteenth century. According to Bent’s Register of Engravings (1846), it was engraved and published in London by J. R. Mackrell after a painting by William Shayer. Prices are listed for both a plain (7s 6d) and colored edition (15s). After a bit of haggling, I paid $20 for this plain version, which I think actually looks better than the color print.

Collection of Matthew Wittmann
Collection of Matthew Wittmann

William Joseph Shayer (1811-1892) was an English artist and the eldest son of William Shayer (1787-1879), a noted landscape and figure painter from Hampshire. The younger Shayer specialized in coaching and hunting scenes, but as both signed their works “W.S.” and painted in the same style, there is often some confusion with regards to the attribution of their respective works. Given the subject and date, it seems clear that this particular print was based on an early work by the younger Shayer (and if a reader can point me to the original painting, do let me know). The painting below, descriptively entitled The London to Brighton Stage Coach (ca. 1850), offers a good impression of his typical subject matter and technique.

Bridgeman Art Library
Bridgeman Art Library

The pleasing pastoral and sporting scenes painted by the Shayer family made their works popular with printmakers who sought to capitalize on the seemingly insatiable public demand for such images. Hundreds, if not thousands, of different prints after the Shayers’ works were produced in volume in London and beyond during the nineteenth century.

The “Lord William” aquatint was made by a prolific engraver named James R. Mackrell (ca. 1814-1866). As previously noted it was first published in 1845, but some restrikes seem to have been made at a later date. An aquatint is a variety of etching that was invented in France in the 1760s, and its characteristic feature is to give the appearance of watercolor washes. The process involves a copper or zinc plate that is covered with powdered rosin and then progressively etched and bathed in acid to create the desired lines and tonal variations. An intaglio method of printmaking, the resulting incised image is able to hold ink and is then passed through a press with a sheet of paper to produce the final print. The appeal of the aquatint was that it provided printers with a way to more easily create large areas of tone, and the durability of the plates used allowed for large print runs. The distinctive “watery” look of the aquatint proved popular with the public as well, and even after the ascent of lithography in the mid-nineteenth century, aquatints were still being produced in large numbers.

Detail of characteristic aquatint wash
Detail of characteristic aquatint wash (middle left background of print)

I was initially under the impression that the titular “Lord William” was the driver, and it was only upon closer inspection that I realized that it was the horse. The descriptive text underneath the image indicates that he was the property of one Samuel Lawrence, Esqr., while also noting the following: ‘This Extraordinary animal Trotted a Match against time in harness, for a wager of 200 Sovereigns aside from London to Brighton in the unprecedented time of Three hours and Fifty minutes. October 14th 1842. Driven by the Owner.’ Harness racing, in which horses race at a specified gait pulling a wheeled cart called a sulky, had originated in North American in the late 17th century and the first recorded harness races in Britain were held in 1750. By the mid-nineteenth century, it was a favored form of sport and gambling among gentlemen of means, as the relatively large stakes of this contest suggest. Although races are now held at formal tracks, at the time they were usually staged as single matches between two gentlemen and their steeds over a proscribed road and/or distance. The famed Brighton Road (the modern day A23) was fifty-one and a half miles as measured from the south side of Westminster bridge to the seaside aquarium in Brighton, which was then a fashionable resort. Horses bred specifically for trotting came to be known as “Standardbreds” because they had to be able to trot a “standard” mile in less than two and a half minutes. In his race from London to Brighton, Lord William traveled at a clip of 13.4 miles per hour or a little less than four and a half minutes per mile, an impressive pace given the total distance. Unfortunately, I have been unable to locate a contemporary account of the contest, so this print might serve as the only record of Lord William’s victory.

Sources: Brian Stewart and Mervyn Cutten, The Shayer Family of Painters (1981); Wray Vamplew, The Turf: A Social and Economic History of Horse Racing (1976); for a more recent and entertaining account of horse racing in New York see Steven Reiss, The Sport of Kings and the Kings of Crime (2011)

The Armory Exhibition at 100

Archives of American Art
Archives of American Art

The centennial of the International Exhibition of Modern Art, better know as simply the Armory Show, has prompted a renewed wave of interest and a number of competing exhibitions about what many regard as the most important event in the history of American art. A full list of exhibitions and related publications can be found here, but perhaps the most prominent of these shows is the New-York Historical Society’s Armory Show at 100, which runs through February 23, 2014. I had the opportunity to visit when I was in New York City last week, and I must say that I came away rather disappointed (though the accompanying website is useful). Although the NYHS was able to get some fantastic material on loan for the exhibition, the overall interpretation was creaky and its organization was at times simply confusing.

First and foremost, it is not clear where the exhibition actually starts, with a small gallery of material about “Organizing the Armory Show” and a hallway full of contextual information about New York City in the early twentieth-century awkwardly positioned before the main gallery (I am still not sure if I was meant to go through these before or after the art). Whatever the case, the central gallery includes some 100 works drawn from over thirteen hundred pieces that appeared in the 1913 exhibition. One thing that is made very clear from the beginning is the overall theme, which promises “Modern Art & Revolution,” but much of what follows belies this bold promise and the conflation of politics and aesthetics is problematic throughout. The NYHS exhibition is roughly structured along the same lines as the original show, but the very truncated wall texts deal in such generalities that it is sometimes difficult to get a strong sense of either the historical exhibition or the contemporary interpretation being proposed.

Archives of American Art
Archives of American Art

One salutary feature of the present exhibition is its fidelity to representing the wide range of art works that appeared in the Armory Show, much of which was neither revolutionary nor particularly modern. The American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917) and French Symbolist Odilon Redon (18401-1916) were among the most well-represented and received artists, and neither are particularly well-known today.

Terra Foundation for American Art
Terra Foundation for American Art

My favorite paintings in the exhibition (and it is almost entirely paintings) were those by what I would call the American avant-garde. George Bellows’ The Circus, Robert Henri’s Figure in Motion, Arthur B. Davies’ Line of Mountains, and John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar are all wonderful paintings by artists identified with the so-called Ashcan School. All of these artists were also “revolutionary” and “modern” in their own way, but the framing of the exhibition is so narrowly focused on celebrating an ostensibly sui generis European modernism that it effectively marginalizes innovative American art. Indeed, this was something that many American artists bemoaned about the the Armory Show at the time, so I suppose it is only proper that this current exhibition similarly elevates the European artists over their supposedly hidebound American counterparts. In short, the NYHS exhibition does not do American artists any favors, and all the Armory Show’s complications and contradictions are elided in favor of the shibboleth that the “new” European art revolutionized American culture in one fell swoop.

One noteworthy section positioned amidst the transition to the vaunted European works is a selection of prints by a variety of artists, ranging from John Marin and Stuart Davies to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Edvard Munch. These delightful prints suggest a much more complementary relationship between European and American art than is elsewhere acknowledged.

Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia Museum of Art

Still, in arriving at the exhibition’s version of Gallery I, the infamous “Chamber of Horrors” that featured Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 and Henri Matisse’s Blue Nude, it is easy to see why some visitors found these works so surprising in 1913. The NYHS was able to borrow an impressive array of what was regarded as the more sensational art in the Armory Show, but it is of course impossible to resurrect the shock of the new with what are now canonical works. Count me as skeptical that “everyone” was so stunned by these artworks. Recent scholarship suggests that the response to the Armory Show by critics, artists, and the public was much more complicated than the conventional narrative suggests. Moreover, one of the most tired tropes in cultural history and criticism is the idea that X (film, book, album) shocked the world and/or changed everything. As J.M. Mancini, Christine Stansell, and many others make clear, this supposed cultural and aesthetic revolution had a much longer trajectory.

To be fair, some of these complications are addressed around the edges of exhibition, and I can appreciate why the curators stay so focused on the conventional, if flawed, interpretation of the Armory Show to give the exhibition a certain clarity. But other decisions seem less defensible. The end of the main gallery contains a mixed bag of material that confusingly includes some works from J.P. Morgan’s collection in an apparent effort to show that not all contemporary collectors were interested in modern art, which hardly seems surprising. There are also a smattering of works that do not convincingly address the legacy of the Armory Show in American art, though it is a subject that gets more satisfying treatment in the historical materials displayed in the hall adjacent to the main gallery. I really wish that an effort had been made to integrate the very useful and important contextual material in this hall that both sets the scene and explores the legacy of the Armory Show with the actual art. It would have made for a much more coherent interpretation and introduced a level of dynamism that the simple recreation of the original show in smaller form lacked. Of the other ancillary room on “Organizing the Armory Show,” the less said the better about this text-heavy and generally uninteresting display. In sum, I feel like what the Armory Show at 100 needed was to find a better angle, one that would have integrated the Armory Show art with the other materials into a larger story about the development of American modernism. All of that said, the NYHS has assembled a truly wonderful collection of art, and it is well worth a visit. I should also note that the museum has another exhibition open downstairs called Beauty’s Legacy: Gilded Age Portraits in America, which has a rather more satisfying and focused interpretative line and some really excellent portraits so be sure to check that out as well.

Some final notes. The accompanying catalogue, which has a great roster of contributors, undoubtedly deals with some of the complications and criticisms of the exhibition that I offered above, but its size and price ($65!) precluded me from getting a good look. I will update when I do! There are also some great resources online about the Armory Show for those interested. Beyond the aforementioned New-York Historical Society website accompanying the exhibition, the Smithsonian Archives of American Art has a good collection of primary sources here, and the Art Institute Chicago’s has a neat site here about the Armory Show’s sojourn to the Midwest.


A Circus Treasure Re-emerges!

Frederic Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928) was an American artist who spent most of his career in France, but is now perhaps best remembered for the “Orientalist” paintings that he made during a series of visits to North Africa. My own curiosity about Bridgman was stimulated after finding a reference to a painting he made of a circus that caused a stir at the Paris Salon of 1870. Bridgman was born in Tuskegee, Alabama and moved to New York City at a young age, where he worked as a draughtsman before departing for France in 1866. In Paris, he studied painting under the tutelage of Jean-Léon Gérôme and adopted his highly finished academic style. Like many other expatriate artists at the time, he traveled to Brittany during the summer and often stayed in Pont-Aven, a coastal town that was fast becoming a significant artist’s colony. Bridgman made of number of paintings during this time depicting rural Breton life, including one that was initially known as Un cirque en province. After debuting at the Paris Salon to wide acclaim, the painting was featured at the Brooklyn Art Association’s Annual exhibition in 1870, where it was again warmly celebrated. In 1875 and now titled The American Circus in France, it was included in the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition in New York City. It was at this time that the London-based Art Journal commissioned James Geraty to make a steel engraving of the painting, “which last year was the event of the National Academy Exhibition,” for the February 1876 edition of the publication.

geraty, after bridgman-american circus in france

It was also around this time that the original painting was sold to a Mr. Edward F. Rook of New York. Per the New York Times, it was subsequently auctioned off by the Fifth-Avenue Art Galleries in April 1888 for the then princely sum of $1,000. Although the buyer was unnamed, the painting later appeared in an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1890. However, after that it seemed to have disappeared. Fred Dahlinger and I wanted to use the engraving as an illustration for his essay in the American Circus volume, so we made a concerted effort to find out more about the painting, with marginal success. Part of the problem we had in tracking it was the evolving title, having been variously displayed as Breton Circus, The American Circus in France, American Circus in Paris, A Circus in Brittany, Circus in the Provinces, A Circus in the Province, and American Circus in Normandy. I had actually come to think that the painting had been lost until one of my former students, who is now working at Sotheby’s, casually mentioned the other day that there had been an old American circus painting up for auction last fall. I fairly bolted for a computer and there it was, lot #5 in a 19th Century European Art auction at Sotheby’s this past November!


The painting was estimated at between $250,000-$350,000, but according to the results was either withdrawn or remained unsold. The provenance published by Sotheby’s indicated that Rook’s son was the unnamed buyer at the 1889 auction and revealed that it was subsequently gifted to Nelson C. White in 1960 and passed down through his family. It turns out that we had somehow missed the fact that it was included in a major traveling exhibition about American artists in Brittany and Normandy in the early 1980s, but that seems to have been its only public appearance since 1890. Really I was just happy to see that the painting survives as it is a rather lovely representation of a subject that greatly interests me, namely the American circus abroad.

Of course, much of the secondary literature has speculated about the veracity of the scene. According to Ilene Susan Fort’s dissertation, Bridgman wrote a letter to an unidentified correspondent on February 20, 1871 detailing how he made a model ring and tent using an old sail before going “to a neighboring city to make a study of the whole arrangement of the interior and costumes.” Fort speculates that it was a European troupe, and in his definitive history of the circus in France, La Merveilleuse histoire de cirgue (1947), Henry Thetard reproduced the engraving and described it as an English circus. In all likelihood though, this is an American circus. One obvious clue is the Native American figure sitting with his back to the ring by the bandstand, however, the simple fact that it is a tent circus with a sidewall and center and quarter poles more or less confirms that it is an American one as this was a very characteristic set up. Moreover, an American show managed by James Washington Myers (1820-1892), an all-around circus man who featured as both an equestrian and clown, arrived in France during the spring of 1867. Billing the show as “Le Grand Cirque Americain,” Myers spent the next two years performing in Paris and touring the provinces with an American-style tent circus. Below is a detail of the set-up from a herald in the Musée national des Arts et Traditions Populaires which makes it fairly clear that this was the circus upon which Bridgman modeled his painting.


I will follow up with another post about the classic elements of the circus–ringmaster, equestrians, and clowns–depicted in the painting soon, but I just wanted to highlight Bridgman’s wonderful work and clarify something of its background first.


Sources: For the definitive treatment of Bridgman’s career, see Ilene Susan Fort, “Frederick Arthur Bridgman and the American fascination with the exotic Near East,” (Ph.D. Dissertation, City University of New York, 1990); David Sellin, et. al., Americans in Brittany and Normandy, 1860-1910 (Phoenix Art Museum, 1982); David Fitzroy, Myers’ American Circus (Self-published, 2002).


Making the Circus American in Albany

Albany Institute of History & Art
Albany Institute of History & Art

Last week I went up to Albany to deliver a lecture on the circus for the “Making It American” series at the Albany Institute of History & Art. My talk explored how various geographic, economic, and demographic factors in the United States transformed this rather quiescent European cultural import into a dynamic commercial industry. My take-home points centered on the way that mobility, diversity, and gigantism defined the American circus. But I don’t want to get into all that here. Rather, I want to write a quick post about the handbill above, which was brought to my attention when the Albany Institute used it to advertise the talk. It is very interesting example of evolution of traveling shows in the United States amidst the ongoing Market Revolution. Although it is headlined as a “Menagerie,” the fact that the advertised benefit is for Mr. Sherman, a “Ring Master,” suggests that the show was something more than just a traveling zoo. Until the 1830s, the circus was a primarily equestrian entertainment with acrobats, clowns, and the like, but it gradually absorbed the related business of itinerant animal exhibitions. This 1834 handbill is for the “Grand Mammoth Zoological Exhibition” run by Eisenhart Purdy and Rufus Welch, and it was one of the last and largest traveling menageries prior to their absorption by the circus industry. The show traveld on twenty wagons from town to town and advertised seventy-five animals that were displayed in three separate tents. The one elephant was Caroline, the so-called “ship-wrecked elephant,” who was known by that moniker after surviving an accident on the Delaware River in late 1831. Caroline performed an act in the ring with her keeper, the Mr. Sherman above, and the other ring attraction involved two pony-riding monkeys, Jim Crow and Dandy Jack. Purdy and Welch also engaged the Washington Military Band for the season, which included some dozen musicians, and seems to have been the first professional brass band to tour with a show. This evolving mix of circus (ring acts), menagerie (exotic animals), and ancillary attractions (brass band) would cohere into what we would now regard as the classic American circus in the decade that followed.

The handbill itself is an interesting artifact. It was printed by Hoffman and White in Albany, but the fine lion engraving was originally made by Abel Bowen, a noted Boston printer. His signature can be seen between the animal’s legs  and the “sc.” abbreviation after simply indicates it was “scuplted,” i.e. carved or engraved by Bowen. It was in a likelihood a stereotyped block that either the Albany printers had in their inventory or that the show itself lent to local printers to produce their publicity. There’s a nice mix of contemporary fancy types on the bill, and the “Benefit” line letters in particular have some exquisite detail. The benefit advertised here was a standard event where the profits for a particular performance were set aside for a specific performer or charity. It provided good publicity for the show and also gave the proprietors a chance to reward popular acts. As the ringmaster, Sherman was the public face of the show, but despite his “untiring efforts to please,” he does not seem to have had a long career in show business. After the “Grand Mammoth Zoological Exhibition” left Albany, it continued touring through Connecticut and New Jersey before wintering in Philadelphia. The handbill is a fine example of contemporary ephemera that also gives us a glimpse into the gradual merging of the circus and menagerie business in the United States.

For more, see Stuart Thayer’s Annals of American Circus. I’ve also written more about the evolution of circuses, menageries, and printing in this era here and here.

Happy 150th Anniversary!

On this day in 1863, Charles S. Stratton, better known to the world as General Tom Thumb, married Lavinia Warren at Grace Church. Stratton’s longtime associate P. T. Barnum promoted the event as “The Fairy Wedding,” alluding the diminutive stature of the bride and groom. General Tom Thumb was among the most famous performers in the United States, and had toured throughout the United States and Europe. His marriage to Lavinia Warren, who Barnum billed as the “Queen of Beauty” and the “Smallest Woman in the World,” was the social event of the season, overshadowing for a time even news of the war. In his memoirs, Barnum set the scene as follows:

The day arrived, Tuesday, February 10, 1863. The ceremony was to take place in Grace Church, New York- The Rev. Junius Willey, Rector of St. John’s Church in Bridgeport, assisted by the late Rev. Dr. Taylor, of Grace Church, was to officiate. Tbe organ was played by Morgan. I know not what better I could have done, had the wedding of a prince been in contemplation. The church was comfortably filled by a highly select audience of Iaci.ies and gentlemen, none being admitted except those having cards of invitation. Among tbem were governors of several of the States, to whom I had sent cards, and such of those as could not be present in person were represented by friends, to whom they had given their cards. Members of Congress were present, also generals of the army, and many other prominent public men. Numerous applications were made from wealthy and distinguished persons, for tickets to witness tbe ceremony, and as high as sixty dollars was offered for a single admission. But not a ticket was sold; and Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren were pronounced “man and wife” before witnesses.


Library of Congress
Library of Congress

The above hand-colored Currier & Ives lithograph depicts the bridal party, which included the dwarf Commodore Nutt and Lavinia’s sister Minnie, encircled by vignettes of their assorted performance routines. The illustration along the bottom shows the miniature carriage that the happy couple took through the cheering crowds to the fashionable Metropolitan Hotel at Broadway in Prince for the reception. During their honeymoon tour, the newlyweds were hosted by President Lincoln at the White House. Grace Greenwood, a visiting journalist, commented that she “noticed the President gazing after them with a smile of quaint humor; but, in his beautiful, sorrows-shadowed eyes, there was something more than amusement–a gentle, human sympathy in the apparent happiness and good-fellowship of this curious wedded pair–come to him out of fairyland.” The Strattons afterward traveled to Europe and eventually embarked on an ambitious three-year tour around the world in 1869. Charles passed away in 1883, but Lavinia remarried and lived long enough to appear in a silent film short, The Lilliputians’ Courtship (1915).

***UPDATE: For those in the New York metropolitan area, I’ll be giving a talk on the life and times of Charles Stratton at the wonderful Observatory in Brooklyn on Tuesday, March 19. Details here.

Sources: The Life of P. T. Barnum (1888); Abraham Lincoln: tributes from his associates, reminiscences of soldiers, statesmen and citizens (1895); A. H. Saxon, ed., The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (1979).

Engraving John Bill Ricketts

One of the most important and yet mysterious figures in the annals of the American circus is John Bill Ricketts. Although Ricketts was not the first equestrian performer to grace American shores, he has rightfully received the lion’s share of the credit as a founding father of the circus for the scope and duration of his entertainment-related efforts. Much is known about his activities during the eight years he spent in the United States and Canada, from his arrival in Philadelphia in 1792 to his final departure from the country with a small company of performers in the spring of 1800. This is largely due to the diligent research of James Moy, whose dissertation remains the best source on his career. What is less clear was what Ricketts did before and after his time in the United States. Presently the first record of him performing are newspaper advertisements from 1786 for performances at Jones’ Equestrian Amphitheatre in London, but he also spent a significant part of his early career in Edinburgh. The end of his life is even more of a mystery, as his small company was waylaid by pirates near Guadeloupe, but recovered to perform around the Caribbean in 1800-1801. His contemporary and fellow performer John Durang reported that he subsequently “sold all his horses to great advantage and had made an immense amount of money; he chartered an old vessel to take him to England; the vessel foundered and he was lost with all his money at sea.” I have yet to find an independent confirmation of how Ricketts’ met his end.

While much about Ricketts remains unknown, one thing I was able track down was the source of an oft-reproduced but poorly sourced image of the man and his famous horse Cornplanter. As far as I can tell this image was published for the first time in John and Alice Durant’s Pictorial History of the American Circus (1957). Durant-Ricketts, pg.23On page 23 there is a small and poorly reproduced image of a mounted Ricketts jumping over another horse held by a groom under a banner reading “We ne’er shall look upon his like again” (an allusion to Hamlet).The Durants credited it to the New York Public Library, but I did not find anything at either the main library’s Print Room or in the Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Google turned up another version of the image on John Bill Ricketts’ Circopedia page, there credited to the Museum of the City of New York. What I found on a visit there was pretty clearly just a modern copy. Where was the original?

It was clearly a metal plate engraving, which was confirmed by this entry in David McNeely Stauffer’s checklist of American Engravers Upon Copper and Steel (1907):Stauffer, pg. 464

Frustratingly, no source was given. Some further work in Google Books turned up a note about its inclusion in an exhibition at the Boston bibliophile “Club of Odd Volumes” in 1914. It was listed as part of the collection of Robert Gould Shaw and described as an “Extremely Rare Print.” While the disposition of this particular print was not discovered, I was able to find a second allusion to the Scoles engraving. This was from a catalogue of rare books purchased by New York book dealer George D. Smith from the collection of the noted American playwright and stage director Augustin Daly (1838-1899). It details a rare extra-illustrated edition of William Dunlap’s History of the American Theatre (1832), which included among its rarities something described only as “Mr. Ricketts by Scoles.”

Smith-Dunlap Description

Knowing that much of Augustin Daly’s library was in the Harvard Theatre Collection (and indeed this had seemingly been one of the foundational purchases of that collection), I went right to their library catalog, which confirmed that Harvard had Daly’s copy of Dunlap but little else. So it remained for me to take make the trip up there and examine the volumes in person. They are an invaluable treasury of American entertainment history, and a little over 100 pages into volume two, I found the engraving of Ricketts. Although I knew the supposed dimensions, it was something of surprise to see how small the original sepia-toned engraving was. John Scoles was a talented engraver and sometime book seller in New York City from 1793 to 1844 so this was among his earliest works. Ricketts first regularly performed the feat of jumping Cornplanter over another horse “fourteen-hands-high” in 1796 so the engraving likely dates to that year. It is a well-cut and dramatic scene and I was just thrilled to finally find the original. I ordered a scan and it will certainly figure in the upcoming Circus and the City exhibition!

Update: After my request, Harvard put the high-resolution image online here. And it is of course featured in the Circus and the City catalogue, which you can buy here.

The Zoological Institute Poster

My essay about one of the most spectacular works of antebellum American printing, the Zoological Institute poster, has been published by Common-Place and you can read it here. Although I discuss the version held at the American Antiquarian Society, there are three other extant copies, which are held by the Shelburne Museum, the Smithsonian, and the New York Historical Society respectively.

American Antiquarian Society
American Antiquarian Society