Artistic License: Celebrates The Circus


Big striped tops, colourful characters, bright lights and daring performances are all celebrated in “CIRCUS250: ART OF THE SHOW” at the NATIONAL GALLERY OF IRELAND

Mainie Jellett, Under the Big Top at a Circus

Joanne Drum, education officer at National Gallery of Ireland, is also curator of the new exhibition and she tells us about the tours, workshops, film screenings, lectures, pop-up talks, family events, and more, so that visitors can enjoy the circus when they come to the Gallery this summer.

Harry Kernoff, Circus Ring

Can you tell us about the inspiration behind this summer exhibition?

This exhibition forms part of the Circus250 events, which celebrates the 250th anniversary of the circus in the UK and Ireland. Philip Astley, a former cavalryman and expert trick-rider, set up a riding school and performance arena in a place in London called Ha’penny Hatch, near Waterloo. He was a showman and a skilled publicist, and when he combined performances of feats of horsemanship with comedy and acrobatic performances, he created the first circus. Dublin was the first place where he travelled outside of London, coming here first in 1773.

The Gallery has a small but rich collection of circus-inspired art, most of which is rarely on display, so this anniversary presented a perfect opportunity to show them off. The works range from loose sketches which were made by artists as they sat at the ringside in the circus tent, to fully-formed paintings. Each work evokes the atmosphere of the circus in a different way. We also have rarely-seen archive material, such as circus programmes and posters on display.

Mary Swanzy, Clown by Candlelight

Do you have any of your own memories of going to the circus as a child?

My own circus memories are hazy. I know that I was taken to the circus, but have better recollection of the irresistible lure of the sideshow and fairground attractions, such as the carousel. I remember begging to be allowed to have a go, and feeling on top of the world as I whirled around on a plumed white horse.

George Joseph Huband, Two Pantomime Clowns mocking each other, 1822

I believe that there are several Yeats and Kernoff artworks in the exhibition …

Jack B Yeats adored the circus, and created many paintings and sketches of the crowd, the big top, and the performers. We are also fortunate to have a large archive of his work and items he collected. The four vintage circus posters, dating from 1899-1915, are from Yeats’ archive. They have never been displayed in the Gallery before, and have been painstakingly conserved for this exhibition. They proclaim to have the most astounding performances, and it must have been so exciting when they came to town. I have spent time imagining that I have to choose between the four and can attend only one. I still haven’t made up my mind.

We also have two circus programmes from the Yeats archive. One of these is for Barnum and Bailey’s astounding Greatest Show on Earth from 1899. Visitors can compare the photo of PT Barnum on the cover of the programme to Hugh Jackman’s portrayal of him in the recent blockbuster, The Greatest Showman, which we will screen with the Friends of the National Gallery of Ireland as part of our Circus Film Fortnight in July.

Duffys Circus poster

Can you tell us about the workshops which run in tandem to the exhibition?

Planning the Circus250 exhibition has been lots of fun, but by far the best bit has been putting the programme of events together. One of the aims of the celebrations is that people might find circus where they least expect it, so we are keen to have performances here at the gallery. This summer, we will have performances by Lords of Strut, Mat Ricardo (the Gentleman Juggler), comedian contortionist Jonathan Burns and more.

Steve Simpson, illustrator and graphic designer, will be in residence in our studio from July 17 to August 12, and will run workshops for professionals, students, and children. Some of Steve’s work has a distinctly circus theme, so we look forward to seeing what he does in his time here.

Worth taking time off for is the two-day intensive sketching course here on July 12 and 13. Led by artist Julie Brazil, the course offers exclusive access to our archive collections, a curator’s tour of the exhibition, and outdoor drawing sessions to inspire your own sketching art.

Need to Know: “Circus250: Art of the Show” runs until 14 October 14 in Room 31 (Hugh Lane Room), National Gallery of Ireland. Admission is free.

Penny McCormick

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