This poster is for the retirement benefit gala of Andrew Hunt, the trainer of an elephant called Lenox in Isaac Van Amburgh’s Travelling Menagerie show. Hunt would rejoin Van Amburgh in the 1840s as the show’s general manager, by which time both the menagerie and Van Amburgh himself were world famous.
Initially known for being the first man to willingly put his head between a lion’s jaws, Isaac Van Amburgh (1801-1865) steadily gained fame and notoriety as the trainer and exhibitor of big cats of all species. Using a mixture of determination, skill and outright cruelty to tame and train the animals, he would then take them on stage and have them do tricks. The tricks became increasingly elaborate and alarming over time: he was once refused permission by Astley’s Circus to make a balloon ascent above the Thames with a wild Bengal tiger, in case the tiger were to kill the balloon operator. Nevertheless, Van Amburgh became famous enough to run his own touring show, and in 1844 performed for Queen Victoria. The queen was so impressed that she commissioned famous nature painter Sir Edward Landseer to paint Van Amburgh’s portrait.
Before the Victorian era, circus-styled entertainments such as those advertised here were confined precisely to the big top of a travelling roadshow. But the growing concentration of Britain’s population in metropolitan areas made the travelling circus a less lucrative prospect. The most successful circuses thus began to establish permanent amphitheatres in big towns and cities. Ryan’s amphitheatre had once hosted Ryan’s Circus, but was at this time a venue for hire for touring parties such as this one.