Circus250 celebration marked at Harley Gallery

Eotvos at Billy Smart's Circus, Fairfield Hall Croydon in 1971.

For anyone who has ever dreamt of running away with the circus or simply wondered what life is like for the jugglers, clowns, and acrobats, a new exhibition at The Harley Gallery on the Welbeck Estate by acclaimed photographer Peter Lavery captures what goes behind the scenes at the Big Top.

Peter Lavery has spent the last 50 years following and photographing circuses the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland (see notes to editors). His new exhibition, ‘Circus Work’, is the first to document this five-decade-long project and is showing at The Harley Gallery on the Welbeck estate, between Nottingham and Sheffield, from 3 February 3-April 15.

Taken in both black and white and colour these intimately detailed, large-scale photographs show circus performers relaxing while off duty, practicing, getting ready to perform, part made-up and costumed, and revealingly off-guard.

Lisa Gee, Director at The Harley Gallery, said: “Peter Lavery’s pictures capture a world unknown to most of us. He takes us behind the curtain to see the grit amidst the glamour, the contrast between the mundane and the magical and reveals the hard work and humanity of this unique community.”

The son of a miner, Lavery has developed an enduring interest and passion for his subject since dropping in on a small indoor circus in his home town of Wakefield in 1968.

“I was immediately struck by the disparity between the outward exoticism, the finery, the sequined costumes, the plumes, the elaborate display and backstage ordinariness. At once I was enthralled by the sounds and the smell, but I had no idea the subject would capture and hold my imagination for the best part of five decades,” he said.

Lavery’s 1993 photography book ‘Circus Work’ is considered one of the most important examples of human and social documentation produced in Britain. Bruce Bernard, former Picture Editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, said “These pictures by a master photographer, could stimulate people to seek out the circus and enjoy it again, sometimes long after they thought they had done so for the last time.”

‘Circus Work’ is part of Circus250, a UK-wide celebration of 250 years of the circus. In 1768, on an abandoned patch of land near London’s Waterloo, showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley did something entirely new.

He gathered together a series of physical acts composed of jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strong men and bareback riders and drew out the very first circus ring. Astley had created a whole new art form – this was the world’s first circus; every circus, anywhere, began at this moment.

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