250th Anniversary of the Birth of Circus

For our final blog post of 2017 Arantza Barrutia-Wood, Collections Manager at the National Fairground and Circus Archive (NFCA), looks forward to 2018 and marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of modern circus in England as developed by Philip Astley in 1768.

Philip Astley. Image courtesy of the University of Sheffield Library, NFCA.

Philip Astley, was a Sergeant Major of the 15th Light Dragoons, who possessed a natural talent with horses and a strong ambition to make a name for himself. Upon retiring from military service, Astley made a living from equestrian trick riding and horse training. Trick riding was one of the most fashionable types of popular entertainment at the time and it is from the combination of equestrian acts and travelling entertainers such as acrobats, clowns, actors and eventually wild animal acts that modern circus was born in London.

The impact of this new form of entertainment was such that it wasn’t long before it spread around the world and different nationalities developed their own distinctive acts. During the industrial revolution, circus played a big role as a major form of popular entertainment becoming the main source of wonder and escapism for the masses. The responsive nature of the business to audience and cultural demand has always impacted on its practices, reflecting socio political fashion and change, and touching on every aspect of society from philosophical thought to legislation and education.

M. Jean Polaski, at Astley’s. Image courtesy of the University of Sheffield Library, NFCA.

Through 250 years of history, circus has remained an important part of popular entertainment and retains its ever evolving nature with current practices crossing over between contemporary dance and traditional performance of great human skill and discipline, as well as playing an ever growing role on community engagement and regeneration.

This important event is going to be marked with celebrations across the UK led by academics, sector practitioners and the heritage sector including museums, archives and historic sites. Community participation, scholarly research and discussion, as well as contemporary circus performance exploration and development are key to the celebrations.

Image courtesy of the University of Sheffield Library, NFCA.

The NFCA is taking this opportunity to bring current scholarly discussion and development from a wide range of academic backgrounds and disciplines to the University of Sheffield through an exhibition, a series of talks, community events and a conference, amongst other activities. It will be delivered within the framework of the NFCA as part of a wider project to promote accessibility to and understanding of this unique collection, and circus as an important part of human history.

We will provide a platform for the objective delivery of intellectual thought and community engagement, and to create connections with external audiences and professional bodies. We are proposing an innovative approach to archival research, using Unique and Distinctive Collections for the purpose of engaging the wider community with scholarly research. The 250th anniversary of the birth of circus is a unique opportunity to make academia accessible and engaging though the delivery of current topics of interest relevant to 21st century society through the exploration of circus.

Russian Bar Stynka Trio, Moscow State Circus. Image courtesy of the University of Sheffield Library, NFCA.

The exhibition will take place at the Western Bank Library, University of Sheffield, it’s free of charge and open to everyone March to December 2018.

For further information please see our website: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/nfca; follow us on twitter: @fairarchives,  or facebook: https://www.facebook.com/nfcarchive/