This lively poster for Astley’s Circus in Westminster puts the emphasis on the circus’s new star performer, American animal trainer Isaac Van Amburgh (1811-1865). Reputedly the first person to stick his head between a lion’s jaws in the name of entertainment, Van Amburgh used a mixture of determination, skill and outright cruelty to first tame and then exhibit a selection of big cats for public amusement. Shortly after this performance, he would establish his menagerie as a touring attraction in his own right, eventually performing for Queen Victoria in 1844. The queen was so impressed that she commissioned Edward Landseer to paint an oil portrait of Van Amburgh. This portrait is now part of the Royal Collection at Windsor.
Astley’s Circus was one of the most famous and innovative circuses in the world at this time. Founded in 1868 by Philip Astley, an expert equestrian, it was the first circus to stage its events in a ring with the audience seated all round. Charles Dickens visited this incarnation of Astley’s Circus several times during the 1830s, and wrote about it in his Sketches by Boz (1836).