A Rare Pair of Large c.1880 American Circus Wagon Fragments Carved as Demonic Busts

Origin: American
Period: Late Nineteenth Century
Provenance: Part of the William (Billy) Jamieson (1954 – 2012) Collection
Date: c.1875-1900
Height: 22 inches
Width: 15 inches
Depth: 16 inches
Base Diameters: 15 inches (all approximate & at maximums)

The very rare and very large pair of carved and stained American redwood nineteenth century circus wagon carvings modelled as demonic busts having oversized features with large googly eyes, horns over elongated ears, hook noses and satanic toothy grins and furrowed brows, the wholes with some remnants of polychrome painted decoration, survive from the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The condition of these heavy busts is as to be expected from these nomadic pieces that would have travelled across America, in direct exposure to the elements in all conditions. There is an amount of splitting, with a larger area to one of the bases, and the surfaces are rather dry and coarse but there are no losses of any note with just a few chips to the extremities of the carvings. The remains of the original polychrome decoration remains in the lower relief parts such as to the eye sockets and teeth grooves.

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 busts are either corner figures or more likely figureheads. 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. There was also 'Continent tableaux wagons' of 1877 whereby each wagon had a country designated to it as its theme so for example lions would adorn the African wagons and eagles the American wagons.

The likely makers of these carvings were either the Fielding brothers of new york, Samuel A.Robb opening 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.

The late Mr. Jamieson (1954 – 2012) 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.

A must for the serious circus or fairground collector, or for those with a liking for the darkly decorative. Surrealist rarities of the highest order.