Searching for the Origin of the Astley Circus Engravings
Once again, I was caught up in the hunt and loved every minute! In 1976, our bicentennial year, I was in the nation’s capitol on business. A Washington, D.C. street vendor had a wide assortment of prints and engravings at very reasonable prices. Always on the lookout for circus memorabilia, I asked the vendor if he had any circus prints and was surprised when he produced two original Astley’s Amphitheatre engravings for a buck each.
EXTERIOR VIEW OF ASTLEY’S AMPHITHEATRE. AS IT APPEARED IN 1777, FROM AN ORIGINAL DRAWING BY WILLIAM CAPON.
INTERIOR VIEW OF ASTLEY’S AMPHITHEATRE. AS IT APPEARED IN 1777, FROM AN ORIGINAL DRAWING BY WILLIAM CAPON.
These very familiar images appear in dozens of books on circus history. Philip Astley is considered by many to be the father of the modern circus. He introduced the circus ring used by every modern circus. His first ring, 62 feet in diameter, was later modified to 42 feet which became the international standard.
Interestingly, none of the books I had seen in the past gave information about the origin of the Astley engravings. I would come across these engravings often, used to illustrate stories about Astley and his place in circus history. Various sources for the engravings were acknowledged, including: The Ringling Circus Museum in Sarasota, Florida; The Hertzberg Circus Collection in the San Antonio Public Library; The New York Public Library; and the Radio Times Hulton Picture Library. One book, “The Circus Lure and Legend,” by Mildred Sandison Fenner and Wolcott Fenner, credits the engravings to another book titled “The Circus, Its Origin and Growth Prior to 1835,” by Isaac J. Greenwood. I checked my copy of this book and found it doesn’t list a source for the engravings.
In the bottom right corner of the engravings are these words: “Charles John Smith, F.S.A. sculpt.”
The inscription at the bottom right corner of the engravings.
Searching the Internet, I found a book titled “Bryan’s Dictionary of Painters and Engravers. Vol. II,” by Michael Bryan, published in London in 1889. A description of Charles John Smith appears in this volume.
“SMITH, Charles John, an engraver, was born at Chelsea in 1803. He was the son of an eminent surgeon, resident there for many years. He was instructed in the art of engraving by Charles Pye. He became skilful in his profession, and was extensively employed in the best antiquarian and topographical publications of the time . . . In 1828 he engraved a series of facsimile autographs of illustrious persons from the reign of Richard II to that of Charles II., to which biographies were furnished by John Gough Nichols, F.S.A. At the time of his death he was engaged in a work entitled Historical and Literary Curiosities, of which six numbers were published; the two required to complete it were left unfinished. He was a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. His death occurred in 1838.”
Digging deeper, and still enjoying the hunt, I uncovered the book mentioned above and read the full title: “Historical and Literary Curiosities Consisting of Facsimiles of Original Documents; Scenes of Remarkable Events and Interesting Localities; and the Birth-places, Residences, Portraits and Monuments of Eminent Literary Characters; with a Variety of Reliques and Antiquities Connected With the Same Subjects Selected and Engraved,” by Charles John Smith, F.S.A. The book was published in 1840 and includes the engravings of Astley’s shown above. According to the London Metropolitan Archives, the engravings were made about 1825.
In his book, Charles John Smith describes how he was able to obtain permission to create the engravings from the original “drawings” by William Capon.
“The very remarkable drawings which are thus described, and for the first time exhibited to the public, were copied for the present work by the express permission and condescending courtesy of His Grace the Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. They are contained in that splendid collection of Prints, Drawings, and Original Letters, in the Illustrated copy of the Private Correspondence of Horace Walpole, in the Duke’s Library at Stowe; in which magnificent work the four octavo volumes, published in 1820, are extended into Twenty-three volumes of inlaid text on leaves of elephant folio. Some of the margins are decorated with armorial ensigns : and the places and persons mentioned are illustrated by Portraits, Views, and many hundred Original Letters. The passage at which these representations of Astley’s Amphitheatre are inserted,’ is contained in a Letter addressed by Horace Walpole to the Earl of Strafford, dated September 12th, 1783, printed in vol. 4, pages 340,341.”
The original “drawings” were actually water colors by artist William Capon (1757-1827) and, according to the Bridgeman Art Library, are housed in a private collection.
I have no records of these engravings ever coming up for sale, so determining value is difficult. However, an 1840 first edition of “Historical and Literary Curiosities . . .,” in which the engravings first appeared, is valued at $100-$200, depending on condition.
You can read more about Astley from the “Historical and Literary Curiosities . . .” book and see the engravings as they appear in that book by going to this link: “Historical and Literary Curiosities . . .”
Larry Kellogg is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in circus memorabilia.
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