Decades of Delight

On the 250th anniversary of modern circus, Steve Lee speaks to the granddaughter of famous showman Billy Smart

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Lauded American poet, painter, playwright and author EE Cummings once famously commented: “Damn everything but the circus! Damn everything that… won’t throw its heart into the tension, surprise, fear and delight of the circus, the round world, the full existence.” Even discounting poetic hyperbole, the dramatic, often daredevil skills of circus performers have impressed across the ages.

And since Staffordshire man Philip Astley began to stage his famed equestrian show in the first purpose-built circus ring during 1768 – adding tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown soon after – these spectacular performances have inspired artists to represent the skills displayed within the ring through painting, sculpture and performance art. Now, with the 250th anniversary of modern circus falling this year, Bradford’s Cartwright Hall will host Decades of Delight – an exhibition examining the history, development and secrets of the circus ring.

“Being the city’s civic gallery we initially wanted the show to be art focused, looking at design, graphics, costume, performance,” explains curator Sonja Kielty. “But this soon grew to include mountains of social history – one can’t happen without the other we realised – which includes beautiful, fragile circus-themed children’s toys from Bradford Museum’s archive, [circus performer] Billy Smart’s saddle, newspaper cuttings from the Smart family archive and contemporary fine art paintings by Billy’s granddaughter, Baccara.”

Now living in Essex, visual artist Baccara Smart grew up in the shadow of her family’s world-renowned circus empire. Although the show drew to a close while she was still young, circus is in her blood. “I have always experienced the circus life through family stories and photographs, but in a way this has allowed for more space in my imagination and my art,” she says.

“Right from the famous works of Picasso, Sickert and Dame Laura Knight there is a long tradition of portraying circus in painting and while my earlier work had a more poster-like quality, my recent paintings have a more layered approach with an emphasis on the build-up of materials and a greater spatial depth and atmosphere.”

Included in Decades of Delight are Baccara Smart works inspired by visits to Indian circuses, Rambo and Jumbo, and the Bolshoi Circus of St. Petersburg. The artist says much of her influence comes from “off the radar artists” shown in the State Russian Museum in St Petersburg. “The costumes, lighting, obscurity and theatricality of circus combine to make it a very satisfying subject,” she says.

Also displayed in Bradford will be Cupola, a spectacular installation from Becky Truman that explores artist and audience engagement through the circus experience. Both trapeze artist and costumier, Truman has created a riot of colour, feathers and sequins, a large three-dimensional portrait that she says “encapsulates the emotions of the circus
as experienced by the public”.

“In this digital age there is a backlash, an increasing desire for people to get out and experience live performances that have a link to the history of circus,” says Smart. “There is so much to explore, so much diversity with new forms of contemporary circus alongside traditional, nostalgic performances. I think circus will certainly enjoy a renaissance.”

Decades of Delight is at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery, Bradford, until 22 April

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Interact: Responses to Preview: Decades of Delight

  • Cupola: A Circus Installation & Decades of Delight: 250 Years | Bradford Museums & Galleries Blog
    02 Apr 2018 10:02
    […] Preview: Decades of Delight […]

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