Philip Astley was a distinguished soldier who opened a riding school in Lambeth in 1768. Together with his wife Patty, Astley began to exploit the late Georgian fascination with outdoor spectacles by performing horseback tricks and equestrian skills to the paying public. Astley’s displays of horsemanship were gradually complimented by other visual spectacles of strength and skill, such as acrobatics and tight-rope walking. After his original premises were burnt to the ground in the late 18th century, Astley quickly re-established himself by opening his new ‘Royal Amphitheatre’ in 1795, itself rebuilt following a further fire in 1804 (and pictured here).
Astley’s Amphitheatre is often considered to be the first genuine British ‘circus’ owing to its many features that are still familiar today. Horses travelled at speed around a ring while acrobats and clowns also topped the bill. The Amphitheatre, however, combined other elements of performance more akin to traditional theatres, such as drama and song. Note in this image, for example, the combination of both a stage and circus ring in front of the audience. The Amphitheatre was particularly famed for its battle re-enactments that were often accompanied by explosions and sound effects, and which remained hugely popular with visiting Londoners well into the Victorian period.
Background to the Microcosm of London collection of prints
The Microcosm of London was published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810 as a result of an ongoing collaboration between publisher Rudolph Ackermann, cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson and architectural draughtsman Auguste Charles Pugin. The image shown here was first issued as a loose leaf number that was collated later into separate volumes, all of which proved highly successful as a commercial publishing enterprise.
The Microcosm of London tapped into the demand for highly-coloured prints of real-life subjects that proved something of a publishing sensation during the Regency period. As such, the prints stand as a fascinating historical record of London life in the early years of the 19th century. While Pugin’s fine architectural drawings capture the size and shape of the capital’s principal buildings (both externally and from within) Thomas Rowlandson’s keenly observed figures depict the sheer colour and vitality of late Georgian society, rich and poor alike.