A Rare Group of Six c.1880 American Circus Wagon Fragments Carved as Mythical Faun Masks

Origin: American
Period: Late Nineteenth Century
Provenance: Part of the William (Billy) Jamieson (1954 – 2012) Collection
Date: c.1875-1900
Height: 20.25 inches
Width: 14.5 inches
Depth: 5 inches (each – all approximate and at maximums)

The group of six nineteenth century American circus wagon masks thickly carved on one piece each in softwood modelled as mythical Polynesian(?) fauns each with their hair tied back, oversized ears and small horns with goatee beards, mischievous grins, and broad faces, the wholes with remnants of polychrome painted decoration, surviving from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, each priced individually*.

*Price is per mask (see below), please advise which mask (1 to 6 as annotated on the photographs) that you would like upon purchasing, or for several masks please inquire first.

The condition of the carvings are as to be expected from these nomadic pieces that would have travelled across America, in direct exposure to the elements, in all conditions. Each carving is solid and stable with a dry patination and each proves very decorative with knocks and wear to their surfaces to varying degrees. All of the carvings have the advantage that they can be wall mounted or be free standing on a table-top.

Specific condition for each carving is as follows with correspondence to the numbers on the photographs:

1. SOLD Good decorative condition, paint abrasion mainly to one side, no major chips or cracks £425 SOLD
2. SOLD Fair to good decorative condition, paint abrasion mainly to extremities, small cracks to base and forehead £400 SOLD
3. SOLD Very decorative with lots of paintwork abrasion to the whole especially to the ears and horns, no major chips or cracks £425 SOLD
4. SOLD Good decorative condition, mild paint abrasion to forehead, nose and to one horn, no major chips or cracks £425 SOLD
5. SOLD Fair condition, no real paint abrasion to speak of, yet there are several cracks to the base and forehead which run to the face £375 SOLD
6. SOLD Good decorative condition, mild paint abrasion mainly to ears, no major chips or cracks £425 SOLD

Circus parades in America started in earnest in 1796 when Jacob Crowninshield, captain of the ship America, sailed into New York harbour with a strange cargo, a three-year old elephant, the first to be seen in America, bought for $450 and sold for $10,000 to a Philadephian named Owen who took it on tours until around 1818, and so it began. By the 1820s there were many shows with wild, exotic animals in cages that were on the road. By 1828, Buckley and Wick’s circus ventured out into the eastern areas with forty horses, eight wagons, thirty-five people and a tent of seventy-five feet. For the next twenty or more years to around 1845 circus wagons themselves were strong but simple affairs of light construction and with no ornamentation. By the middle of the 1850s the band chariot and ornamental wagons were part of the circus. Two shops, The Stephensons and the Fielding Brothers workshops were both capable of constructing these highly ornamental and expensive wagons.

In the Autumn of 1881, around about the time these particular carvings were fashioned, a large number of carvings were commissioned for a new group of circus wagons known as Tableaux Dens. Harper’s Weekly reported:

“One shop in New York made forty figures, costing from $25 to $100 each for a circus last winter. They were figures of gods and goddesses, and beasts, birds, and reptiles, and were fastened on the golden chariots that appear in the street processions. When they are to be planted on the sides of the chariots, half figures are used but when they are to be placed on the corners they are carved complete and afterward cut out in the back to fit”

$100 in 1880, for the more expensive carvings, would amount to approximately $2,220 in today’s money (or £1325).

These particular masks are either corner figures or for the flanks of a wagon. For example, birds were carved for the aviary cage wagon, crocodiles and snakes for the reptile cage whilst more fantastical items like these would have been carved for the sideshow, freak, or ghost train associated wagons. It is also possible they could have been associated with a Polynesian or Indonesian wagon.

The likely makers of this carving was either the Fielding brothers of New York, Samuel A.Robb, who opened in 1877, or The Sebastian Wagon Company which opened in 1853. Further reading on this topic and this type of carving can be found in the book ‘Artists in Wood’ by Frederick Fried.

These carvings came directly from the estate of the late Mr. Jamieson (1954 – 2012). Billy Jamieson was a passionate collector and highly respected dealer of tribal and ethnographic material, primitive artifacts, art deco, and in his words “oddities and curiosities”. In the 15 years that he was a dealer, Jamieson sold artifacts to the art world's biggest names - the ROM, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses - as well as to private clients such as Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger. He was also celebrated for his purchase of the historic Niagara Falls Museum, and its nine mummies, one of which was King Ramses I, which was repatriated to Egypt. These carvings are part of a consignment of fifteen pieces from Jamieson’s collection that we have had shipped over from Canada this year.

Many people are fascinated by fairground art and by the gorgeously painted and carved creatures that enchanted us from a young age. The world's finest collection of fairground art was amassed in the 1960s and 1970s by Lord and Lady Bangor when it was generally undervalued and underpriced. When Christie's auctioned their collection at Wookey Hole, Somerset in 1997, the sale attracted huge interest and massive sale results. Collectors flocked not just because of the finery of the collection, but because it is now quite rare to find or be able to purchase fairground art in the open market. Fairground art is highly collectable and the earlier it is, the better.

Wonderfully whimsical and incredibly rare, these striking masks are capable of sprinkling that bit of magical circus fairy dust over any interior.