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.
Astley’s circus was founded by equestrian Philip Astley in 1868 and went on to become perhaps the most famous circus in the world. Not only was it one of the first circuses to have its own permanent base, it was the first to be set up as a central ring around which a crowd was seated on all sides. Charles Dickens visited Astley’s several times as a child, and several more times as an adult, when the circus was under new ownership. Writing in the 1830s, he remarked: ‘Astley’s has altered for the better—we have changed for the worse.’ By this he meant that the innocent glee of the audiences of prior years, his own glee included, had become something more worldly and dispirited. The apparent innocence of the circus would remain an important fixture in his imagination for years. In Hard Times (1854), the playful illusions of Sleary’s Circus being held in healthy contrast to the industrial society that would turn workers into ‘melancholy-mad elephants’.