When I was about 11, a shopkeeper gave me an out-of-date circus poster of a growling lion’s head to stick on my bedroom wall — soon my room, including the ceiling, was covered in them, and more than 35 years later I have over 3,000 circus posters from all over the world, am still collecting and about to complete my fourth book based on my fascination with circus poster art. A circus poster has to work hard to get the attention of the passer-by and make them want to purchase a ticket to a show that will sometimes only be in town for a very short time — very often only one day in bygone times. To this end the excitement and marvel that each bill evokes is very often more than the show itself!
250 years ago, at Lambeth Marsh (known today as London’s Southbank) equestrian Major Philip Astley staged presentations of trick riding and horsemanship. In order to hold his audience’s attention, he introduced displays of sword play and novel features such as his wife Patty riding a horse covered in a swarm of bees. He added jugglers, acrobats, clowns and strong men to his show and the modern circus was born. The First Circus Woodcut Posters When Astley established his first ‘Amphitheatre of Equestrian Arts’, theatres and exhibition owners had already been using posters and handbills for nearly 200 years to promote their performances and shows. Astley’s posters took the typical form of these early bills, listing the featured acts plus a number of woodcut illustrations of the lead attractions for the benefit of those unable to read. Posters greatly influenced the development of typography as such bills w...
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