A Rare & Large c.1880 American Circus Wagon Relief Panel Carved as an American Bald Eagle

Origin: American
Period: Late Nineteenth Century
Provenance: Part of the William (Billy) Jamieson (1954 – 2012) Collection
Date: c.1875-1900
Height: 19.5 inches
Width: 42 inches
Depth: 3 inches (all approximate & at maximums)

The large nineteenth century American circus wagon relief panel thickly carved on one piece in softwood modelled as the emblem of the United States, the American bald eagle, with remnants of polychrome painted decoration, survives from the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The condition of the panel is as to be expected from this nomadic piece that would have travelled across America, in direct exposure to the elements, in all conditions. There is a small amount of splitting and the surface is rather dry and coarse. The panel displays a very small amount of the original polychrome decoration and has scuffs, chips and two hairline cracks but these are surface cracks due to change in temperature and there are no major areas of damage or signs of worm. It proves very decorative and remains very solid.

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).

For example, birds were carved for the aviary cage wagon, crocodiles and snakes for the reptile cage. Importantly for this particular carving, there were also 'Continent tableaux wagons' introduced in 1877 whereby each wagon had a country designated to it as its theme; so for example lions would adorn the African wagons and eagles, such as this one, would decorate the American wagons. This panel we can therefore deduce is almost certainly from one of these continent tableaux wagons as it is such a patriotic carving and as such is a proud piece of American circus history.

The bald eagle was chosen on June the 20th, 1782 as the emblem of the United States of America, because of its long life, great strength and majestic looks, and also because it was then believed to exist only on that continent.

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.

An unashamedly patriotic and highly prominent piece of American circus history; which at the time, was carved to boast America’s bold and proud circus pedigree.