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Spotlight on Circus: Spinacuta's Monkey and Other Wonders of Wire Walking

Spotlight on Circus: Spinacuta's Monkey and Other Wonders of Wire Walking

Spotlight on Circus collections share curatorial insights about connections between objects in the Circus collection and their significance to the history of the circus and allied arts.

The prints that came into the collection during Austin’s tenure represent such a range of topics. Because my knowledge is much stronger on American circus history, I made an initial checklist based on digital records, selecting images that were especially intriguing to me. When I saw the prints in person, all kinds of details jumped out.

The image of The Curious and Uncommon Performances of a Monkey as They Will be Introduced Every Evening at Sadler’s Wells was the first revelation. The print had made the initial list because I was amused by the subject. But then, when the print was in front of me, its relevance to circus history came into focus. First, I was taken by the fact that the performance, so like what we think of in the circus ring, took place in the year or so before Philip Astley debuted his equestrian performance in a ring, accompanied by tumblers and clowns, thus staging what is now viewed as the first modern circus. I knew circus arts were being performed long before Astley’s ring, but I was taken by the proximity of the dates.

Next, I noticed the small type below the title which reads simply “By Spinacuta.” It is a marvel to me that in the 18th century these kinds of performances were given the kind of prominence that would result in a print and to have one’s name attached speaks to a growing notion of celebrity that is possible only with mass media. But those thoughts aside, the name Spinacuta is important. More than twenty years after presenting the monkey at Sadlers Wells, Spinacuta would travel to the United States to perform with John Bill Ricketts’ show in Philadelphia, the country’s first circus.

I also noticed that in one frame Spinacuta’s monkey seemed to have some kind of light surrounding him. This was very similar to the print of The Descent of Madame Saquii Surrounded by Fireworks. In trying to discover what was happening in these images I came across references to the Catherine Wheel, a spinning firework display. The earliest traced reference to this firework was published in 1761, showing how quickly the spectacle of pyrotechnics was adopted by the performance community.