This vivid poster for Astley’s Circus in Westminster demonstrates the typical range of circus entertainments on offer in the early Victorian period. The emphasis is very much on the exotic and the spectacular, with performing animals transported from around the world; re-enactments of internationally famous battles and disasters; and re-creations of fairy tales. The advertisement also bears testimony to Astley’s particular specialty: equestrian spectacles and trick-riding. This season at Astley’s contained performances from the American animal trainer Isaac Van Amburgh (1811-1865), the first man known to have put his head between a lion’s jaws for the sake of entertainment. In 1844, now running his own touring show, Van Ambergh and his menagerie performed for Queen Victoria. The display so impressed the queen that she requested Edward Landseer paint a portrait of Van Ambergh. The painting is now part of the Royal Collection at Windsor.
Astley’s Circus was the brainchild of equestrian trainer and trick rider Philip Astley (1742-1814), hence the heavy reliance on horses in the bill presented here. At the time of this advertisement, the circus and its permanent base – Astley’s Amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road – were owned by Andrew Ducrow (1793-1842). Ducrow was himself a skilled equestrian and kept many of Astley’s other innovations in circus-presentation (most obviously the practice of seating the audience around a central circus ring), but he also began to diversify the entertainments to include performances by wild animals – hence the appearance of Van Amburgh here.