Madalena has been dwelling at Miss Delilah's for some time now; it is very nearly two years since she was deposited by taxi at the end of the drive, where she sat upon her steamer trunk for an entire morning before Henry the gardener spotted her on his way home for lunch.

For very nearly two years, Madalena has not been seen to remove her make-up, not ever.  Her bone-white skin, emerald eyeshadow and sepia curlicues have remained immaculate come rain or shine, through hours in the kitchen and even competing in the village Sports Day (the sack race proved her speciality).  Other denizens of the Home for Wayward Girls have even tried to catch a glimpse of her bathing...but to no avail.

Rumours have spread that her face is not painted at all, that she has been marked with tattoos in some strange pagan ritual not seen before in Nether Thrubwell (where, it must be said, many an odd thing does occur.  Remind me to tell you the tale of the Disappearing Rhubarb of Cuckoo Dingle some time...)  Of course, only Madalena herself knows the truth of the matter, and her speech tends to be confined to meaningful monologues directed at Stanley her pet rattlesnake.

08.24.2015 | Add new comment | in: dolls, storytime

Back to the Circus with the Fearless Lion Tamers

The earliest circuses were, as explained in an earlier post, largely focussed on equestrian acts if only because they were founded by horsemen like Philip Astley and Charles Hughes.  By the time they made the trip across the Atlantic in 1783, many also included a travelling menagerie of caged exotic beasts - but at this point they were merely for display, the public handing over their hard-earned cash simply to look at the strange and fearsome creatures.  Especially exciting were the lions with their 3-inch claws and gaping jaws strong enough to crush a bull's spine.  Once a nattily-dressed chap was foolhardy enough to step into the cage, he was guaranteed star status.

One of the earliest exhibitors of exotic beasts was George Wombwell, a Londoner who founded his Travelling Menagerie in 1810 specifically to tour the fairs of England.  Twenty years later, the show comprised fifteen wagons and proudly displayed monkeys, ocelots, elephants, kangaroos, leopards, llamas, giraffes, ostriches, panthers, a rhino, gorilla, hyena, wildcats, zebras, three tigers and six lions.

Wombwell was the first to successfully breed lions in captivity in Britain, with his first cub "William", but it was his particularly docile lion "Nero" under whose statue Wombwell is buried in London's Highgate Cemetery.

The first man rash enough to work directly with big cats, however, was Frenchman Henri Martin who first made entering the tigers' cage part of his act in 1819.  Having spent a good deal of time gradually introducing himself to the animals - at first merely standing close to the cage, then entering a section of the enclosure shielded by another set of bars, introducing first his head, then shoulders and eventually entire body into the cats' space.  By this time the tigers, and later lions, were accustomed to his presence so that he could safely interact with them in front of an amazed audience.

The first American lion tamer was Isaac Van Ambergh, who began as a lowly cage cleaner for the Zoological Institute of New York but by the 1830s had developed a reputation for his theatrical displays as well as the cruelty of his training regime.  Lions, tigers and leopards were beaten into submission so that he could stage Biblical scenes involving lambs or even children plucked from the audience.  Van Amburgh regularly quoted the Bible to justify his approach: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the Earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the Earth".  Such methods were acceptable at the time, of course, and Van Amburgh became famous enough to perform for Queen Victoria in 1844 and have his portrait painted by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer, stalwart of the Royal Academy and creator of the bronze lions in Trafalgar Square.

Less grandiose yet more endearing is the story of Martini Maccomo, another famed lion tamer in Victorian England, whose origins are shrouded in mystery.  One version of his life story has being born in Angola, others cite the West Indies, Liverpool or even that he was Zulu.  His date of birth is equally variable: his official death certificate states that he was 35 at the time of his demise, the gravestone reads 32, and an obituary in the York Herald puts him at 31.

Wherever he came from, Martini Maccomo signed on with William Manders' Grand National Mammoth Menagerie in 1857 and soon became a major draw.  A host of fabulous titles were heaped upon him by the copywriters: Angola's Mighty Czar of All Lion Tamers. the Dark Pearl of Great Price, the Black Diamond, the Most Talented and Renowned Sable Artist in Christendom, and The Hero of a Thousand Combats being a mere sample.

Maccomo was splendidly accident-prone, however.  In 1860, a lion attacked during a show in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk causing Maccomo to fire his pistol accidentally; a piece of wadding damaged the eye of a local carpenter who sued for damages.  Just one year later, in Liverpool, a Bengal tigress bit Maccomo's hand and held on for five minutes before another keeper managed to free him.  Back in Norfolk in 1862 a lion bit his hand and dragged him around the floor before taking off part of a finger, and in 1869 a performance in Sunderland was disrupted by a lion named Wallace again attacking our unlucky hero.  Nonetheless, he is remembered as "a man of indomitable courage, whose twelve years of performances ... gained for him a reputation second to none as a tamer and as a man" (The Family La Bonche)

Moving into the twentieth century, we find Clyde Beatty exploiting matinee idol looks; he even appeared onscreen in such films as The Big Cage (1933), Cat College (1940) and The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).  Beatty popularised the "fighting style" of lion taming as he entered the cage with a whip and a pistol strapped to his side, portraying the big cats as snarling terrifying beasts so as to emphasise his own skill and bravery in controlling them.  

From the 1930s onwards, Beatty owned (or allowed his name to be used by) several circuses as he became the paradigm of lion tamers for a generation. In 1958 he combined his personal troupe with that of the Cole Brothers, a company which toured under the banner of The Clyde Beatty - Cole Brothers Circus for almost half a century.  In 2004, however, the circus stopped using elephants, the last of its animal acts, and simultaneously removed Beatty's name from its title.  So ended the era of circuses featuring wild animals, an era epitomised by Clyde Beatty which had lasted for more than two centuries and thrilled millions across Europe and the Americas.

02.26.2015 | Add new comment | in: circus, history

A Meander into Journal-land (Part Two)

Once more unto the journal, dear friends, once more....

Continuing to follow the Journal 52 path, the prompt was "Windows".  What thoughts and images does that conjure up?  Framed views onto a garden, or looking from the outside into a house.  Eyes as the windows of the soul, perhaps?  I toyed with the notion of looking in on a scene of foul play a la Miss Marple on the 4.50 from Paddington (aka What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw to our American cousins), or a panoramic view of a country house with all its windows allowing views into the goings-on in various rooms (something like a cross between Cluedo & the sleeve of Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti).  Perhaps they are lines of enquiry to pursue in the future.....  For in the end, I was much taken by the look of portholes & from there it was but a short leap to steampunk airships.

Here we have our dapper captain in boots and monocle, painted on watercolour paper before being collaged into my journal along with pages from an old Arts-&-Crafts diary, a view of a chateau in the Loire, a fabulous clockwork bug & a couple of pieces of luggage culled from the pages of Vanity Fair.  The quotation is from William Burroughs.

Initially his passenger was a blond lady in green & tan leather steampunk attire, but something was wrong.  As the journal stood on my kitchen dresser to dry, I could not put my finger on the problem: she was in scale, anatomy correct, nothing technically amiss at all.  She simply didn't feel like the answer.  Which was when it became clear that I needed to resurrect my scarlet-tressed vixen.

Now I must unearth her name, for I am sure she will demand further appearances.

02.24.2015 | Add new comment | in: artwork, journal

The Last of the Ringmasters.....Perchance

The success of my first mini-figure homage to Gerard Way in his Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge guise (simple black suit, red tie and some seriously emo maquillage) led to exploring alternative personae and especially The Black Parade.

(Artwork by James Jean)

Oh the joy of finding a fabulous pop culture source of dark circus imagery!  Enthused, I picked up my paint brushes and there emerged this little gentleman:

And hence I went on to revisit Captaine Zachariah, creating a mini version of the Bizarrium's very own ringmaster:

A little tubbier than his predecessor, but cute nonetheless, I think.  And he does have the advantage of sporting a genuine silk bow tie, which is surely the mark of a true gentleman?

And now that the Bizarrium can boast three incarnations of the Capitaine, plus Mr. Way in his braided suit, I feel it may be time to move on.  Lion tamer, bearded lady, fortune teller, contortionist, strongman, mermaid.....So many folk to choose between!

02.17.2015 | Add new comment | in: circus, ringmaster

Further Adventures in Journalling

The latest prompt from "Journal 52" was Silhouettes. Whereas many of my fellow artists have found that summons up visions of sunset-backed woodland or candle-lit lovers, I fear the first thing that sprang to my mind was the classic picture of Jack the Ripper looming out of the swirling Victorian fog.  Too much melodrama and film noire fills my head!

Hence I embraced my inner Goth, raided my stash of old magazines and produced this image:


Our knife-wielding antihero stands poised in the doorway of a space which may be industrial or ecclesiatical, his shadow falling across the floor (an old magazine page which, if my memory serves me right, shows a Picasso sketch) towards the cascading hair of our heroine


She is perhaps more noire than Victorian, 'tis true, more Black Dahlia than Mary Kelly.  But I am happy with her combination of pale flesh, dark damask corset & blood-red hair - so much so that I may well use it in a new doll (to be called Elizabeth, of course).

And to muddy the waters still further, the quote upon the wall comes not from the obvious sources - although the notion of using one of the Ripper's letters, or something from Charles Dickens did occur to me - but from Leo Tolstoy's novella "Family Happiness", more recently appearing in Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.


Now for the technical stuff:  I began by coating my pages with white gesso to give them enough body to support the layers of collage without too much buckling, then added a wet-in-wet watercolour wash using sepia, raw umber & Payne's grey tones.  In the end this is only seen in the window behind the Ripper, but it was a quick fix for that "big white canvas" feeling.

I found the Picasso page and another with the archway amongst my magazine-page stash, and drew the rough shape of my foreground body onto some plain paper, then cut them up & spent some time figuring best placement before gluing the glossy papers in position.  A soft grey pencil suggestion of a window frame came next, and very roughly-mixed burnt Vandyke brown & Payne's grey acrylic applied with a dry brush to suggest a wooden wall before I painted the silhouette using black gesso.

Turning to the other page, I traced around my plain paper cutout to remind me of the body placement, then divided that shape into three: face, shoulders & corset.  Each of those elements was traced onto a different paper, & the facial features were drawn & painted before cutting out (easier to work on a larger sheet of paper, I find, & better to do it before gluing in position in case of disaster!)  Then more cutting & gluing before I turned my attention to the quotation upon the wall.

A little online hunting turned up a Gothic font which related to the outline lettering already on the collaged magazine page; I freehand copied it using a Caran Dache watercolour pencil.  A quick coat of matte varnish holds everything in place before a final light coat of beeswax furniture wax (odd, I know, but it brings out the dark tones, stops the pages sticking together & makes my journal smell divine!)  Et voila!

Captaine Zachariah , Master of the Bizarrium


Having, I hope, finally dealt with the malware monster running amok in my computer, may I finally introduce Captaine Zachariah, our very own ringmaster & proud inheritor of tradition.

As you may gather from the above, I am in the process of developing a paper version of the good (?) Captaine, upon which any comments would be appreciated.  Meanwhile a strapping 17inch three-dimensional version is already loosed upon the world via the Itinerant Bizarrium shop.

I must admit to being a little smitten by this chap, and sorely tempted to dig further into his shady past. Since the size of blog page images makes reading his existing backstory a touch difficult, it reads thus:

Since the dark days of revolution, Captaine Zachariah has been at the helm of the Itinerant Bizarrium always keeping his motley band of entertainers one step ahead of trouble.  Many have wondered at his prescience, still more have questioned how such a long-serving leader could yet look so young and lithe ... but none has dared ask the imperious Captaine to his face.

He strides amongst the tents and trailers of his fiefdom at will, setting hearts aflutter with his enigmatic Slavic accent, impeccable Old World manners, and scent of leather & bay rhum.  Yet Zachariah invites no-one to his trailer, no lithe aerieliste or bonny farm girl has won the heart of the circus master.  His rare moments of ease are spent in the company of Bombadil with Cuban cigars, French cognac and a curiously-wrought jade chess set, the colour of which perfectly matches his eyes.

Watch this space for more ......


A Meander into Journal-land (Part One)

As part of the New Year madness, yours truly decided to partake in a year-long excursion into art journalling.  The notion had always appealed to me, but it never quite rose far enough up the "to-do" list when competing with brides, stage shows & children for attention.  But 2015 is the year in which I shall focus on my artwork, & journalling seems like an excellent route back into the necessary mindset.

Hence my signing up to "Journal 52", a free online workshop which provides weekly prompts along with a supportive Facebook group.

The first prompt was "Pathways", which gave rise to the above image - my very first attempt at art jounalling.  Already I can see things which irritate me, but overall I can live with it as a beginner's piece.  I have layered four magazine pages to provide the background, then added the pathway & some extra foiliage with acrylic paint. The main figure is taken from a Vogue fashion shoot by Tim Walker, with Stella Tennant's face being replaced with a drawing of my own.  Her pathway leads alongside dark woods to a tiny house overlooking a golden meadow where another figure looks eagerly forward. 

Around the edge circles a quotation from Thoreau: "As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind.  To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again.  To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives."

01.19.2015 | Add new comment | in: artwork, journal

In which we meet Several Anthropomorphic Ringmasters

In further pursuit of ringmaster-themed inspiration this week, my thoughts have strayed along anthropomorphic lines.  There are certain species which seem to fit the role of authoritative circus leader better than others, of course.

Katherine Dubose Fuerst portrays a thoughtful, very nearly human monkey - clearly in charge on account of his intelligence.


Emporium 51's wily fox, dapper but perhaps a little snappy?


David Vogin portrays several creatures in ringmaster guise; this splendid lion is undoubtedly most masterful.  Who would dare question his orders?


Ken McCuen's steampunk tom cat would make an interesting character, methinks.  A little eccentric, inventive, source of endless new plans.


Melanie Boulon's stag sculpture moves us away from specifically circus-linked portraits, yet his obvious domination of the room and regal stance he would be quite capable of maintaining order in the most uproarious of situations.


Ibride, the French design trio comprising Carine Jannin, Rachel & Benoit Convers, design many fabulous anthropomorphs.  This splendid portrait suggests intelligence allied with an appreciation of the importance of appearance, a combination much valued in the ringmaster.


Time to turn to my sketchbook and cutting table......

Introducing the First Ringmaster, Philip Astley Esq.

Philip Astley

Philip Astley, dear reader, must stand as the founder of modern circus, & hence the first ringmaster.  Born in 1742, the son of a Newcastle-under-Lyme cabinet-maker & duly apprenticed to the trade, Astley turned his back on the family business aged 17 to pursue his equestrian dreams; to this end he joined Colonel Eliott's 15th Light Dragoons, seeing action in the Seven Years' War & rising to the rank of Sergeant Major.

Upon leaving military service, Astley saw an opportunity to profit from the riding skills acquired in the cavalry: trick-riding was an enormously popular entertainment thanks to such illustrious showmen as Jacob Bates.  Hence he opened a riding school in the Waterloo district of London in 1768, & began performing in a nearby field.  His stroke of genius was to stage these shows within a circular enclosure rather than the straight line preferred by his rivals; not only did the centrifugal force assist the riders to stand upon the backs of their galloping steeds, it also afforded the audience a far better view of the proceedings.

(As an aside, Astley's original ring was 62ft in diameter but he later reduced it to 42ft, which has been a standard for circus rings ever since)

Astley's new format was so successful that after only two seasons he could afford to expand, increasing the line-up to include other equestrians plus a range of other acts to entertain the audience between riding sequences.  Musicians, jugglers, tightrope walkers & dancing dogs had all been seen individually across Europe for centuries, but it was Mr. Astley who brought them together with clown figures borrowed from Elizabethan drama to establish a circus troupe such as we would recognise today.

M.Jean Polaski, one of Astley's hired hands

Fame & fortune ensued, including a 1772 invitation to travel to Versailles & perform for Louis XV; he went on to create the first purpose-built circus in France - the Amphitheatre Anglais in Paris - ten years later, followed by a further 17 permanent venues across Europe.

Philip Astley was soon emulated by others, most notably his former employee Charles Hughes, who built a rival establishment rather grandly entitled "The Royal Circus & Equestrian Philharmonic Academy", thus introducing the term "circus" for the first time in this context.  Meanwhile, pupils John Bill Rickets & Philip Lailson both went on to take shows to the Americas.  But that is a whole different story.....

01.08.2015 | Add new comment | in: circus, history, ringmaster

New Year, New MoodBoard

As the old year slips away, dear reader, it comes to all of us - the urge to reassess and redirect our efforts.  And now that the Itinerant Bizarrium has a more consistent online presence via an assortment of these modern media (find us on Facebook, Etsy, DaWanda & Twitter if you please), it seems appropriate to focus and organise this blog.

(As an aside...does not "blog" strike you as an exceptionally ugly word?  Lumpy and squelchy with an air of damp & fetid odours....  Sadly inappropriate for a space in which we share our dreams & aspirations.)


Hence the appearance of my first online moodboard, a pulling-together of some of the images that have been in my head in recent times.  Some have influenced specific dolls in a very clear way (Olive Oatman/Madame Olathe for instance) whilst others are more genuinely "mood" pieces, informing the Bizarrium's overall ethos rather than providing direct details.  Over the next few days I shall attempt to find the source of these images in order to provide credit where it is most definitely due.


Images by Leszek Bujnowski, August Sander, Dan D. Evans, Irina Istratova, & ....????

12.31.2014 | 1 Comment | in: carnival, circus, moodboards
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