Archives for posts with tag: fairground

Postcards I have added to my collection over the past six months.


A miniature print of Messiah (1919) by Ernst Neuschul, an Austrian born painter associated with the New Objectivity movement. I purchased this from the New Walk Museum in Leicester, which holds many German Expressionist works – and those of a similar ilk – which I will write about in the near future. You cannot help but be pulled into this image, which is so unflinching and unapologetic. The figure reminds me of the singer Richard Hell.



This is from a box of postcards of Penguin Classic covers, which I was able to purchase singly from Oxfam Books and Music. The novel is The Drowned World by JG Ballard. Ballard’s novels are mainly dystopian in style, his most famous works being Crash and Empire of the Sun. I haven’t read The Drowned World (yet), although I have read others of his, but the submerged image of the Chrysler building, combined with the strong colours, really spoke to me.



I received this in the mail around a month ago. How exciting it was to receive. My friend was on holiday in Scotland and sent me this postcard of John Byrne’s Jock and the Tiger Cat (1968). It is from the Perth Museum and Art Gallery, where the painting is currently held. Byrne is a Scottish playwright and artist, probably most known for the television series Tutti Frutti starring Robbie Coltrane and Emma Thompson.


The funfair is something I’ve spoken about a few times on this blog, so adding this image to my collection isn’t a great surprise. I like that the shot is slightly out of focus, connoting movement, that the top of the image almost looks tarnished, and the soft natural haze mingling with the neon lights. It reminds me of Coney Island.


Whilst on a recent trip to Dublin, I stopped at the National Gallery of Ireland for a look at their current exhibition, Lines of Vision, curated to celebrate 150 years of the gallery. I purchased this postcard of a painting I was drawn to in the collection entitled Moonlight (1926) by Paul Henry. Henry was born in Belfast and was particularly fond of the West coast of Ireland, where he spent a great deal of time painting landscapes. I liked the simplicity of the work, and on a personal note it reminded me of sailing to Norway last year.


freaksI’ll admit that this is an odd topic for a post during the holiday season but an interesting one nonetheless. At Halloween, whilst re-watching the excellent Tod Browning film Freaks I recalled a post from last year entitled Zoetropes and Kinetoscopes – which I put together after visiting Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre – where I mentioned writing some articles about the history of the circus and its various offshoots, in particular the history of the freak show.

Over the following weeks a trend seemed to emerge featuring all things freaky, beginning with the fourth season of American Horror Story on FOX, which is entitled Freak Show (great concept, dull execution). FOX obviously decided that ‘freaks’ were in and aired a new reality documentary series called Freakshow, in which a man named Todd Ray and his family showcase their Venice Beach sideshow business, featuring his ‘freaky’ employees, including ‘The Lobster Boy’ and ‘The Human Pin Cushion’.

In the first episode Ray attempted to add America’s tallest man, George Bell (7 feet 8 if you’re interested), to his collection of freaks, a word that George was clearly uncomfortable with. Ray also wanted to sign up a bearded lady named Jess, and she was initiated in a scene straight out of Browning’s film (‘One of us! One of us!’). However, many of Ray’s ‘freaks’ are not actually freaks, in that their only ‘deformity’ appears to be the ability to inflict pain upon themselves in a Jackass-style manner.

‘Never seen before…’ Todd wailed as he enticed the public into his shop and displayed his two-headed bearded dragon for all to see. But we have seen it all before. Two-headed reptiles are surprisingly common. Due to fluctuations in temperature of the eggs – since, unlike bird eggs, they are not incubated – mutations can readily form. However, two-headed mammals are much less usual.

The recent death at age 15 of the cat Frankenlouie (Frank and Louie) in Massachusetts only added to the recent discussions concerning the strange and unusual. Contrary to popular belief, Frankenlouie did not have two heads but in fact two faces – a condition called diprosopia – although a creature exhibiting this mutation rarely survives beyond its first few days of life. Frankenlouie’s survival was an extremely rare case, much rarer than the mutation itself.

tomandbarnumAnother recent TV offering was BBC4’s The Real Tom Thumb: History’s Smallest Superstar. Tom was one of the world’s most famous freaks, a young man of just over three feet in stature but with lofty ambitions.

Charles Sherwood Stratton aka Tom Thumb was born in Connecticut in 1838. He was ‘discovered’ by distant relative and circus impresario, PT Barnum, who christened him with the moniker ‘General Tom Thumb’ and made him fabulously wealthy. Tom began his travelling performing career at a very young age, under the pretence that he was on the cusp of adulthood at Barnum’s request. General Tom made friends in very high places, including Queen Victoria and Abraham Lincoln, and his impressive former home is still intact.


According to Britannica, the term ‘freak’ comes from the Old English word ‘frician’, meaning to dance, cavort or any other capricious behaviour.

In the 18th century, ‘freaks’ or ‘freaks of nature’ referred mainly to animals, creatures whose physical make-up deviated from standard norms. Some naturalists collected these creatures and displayed them at touring shows, shocking the public with their ‘cabinets of curiosities’.

In the mid-nineteenth century, circus promoters had added human ‘performers’ to their exhibitions. PT Barnum was one such promoter, however, he did not use the term ‘freak show’. Alongside those with gigantism, dwarfism and the extremely hirsute, many of the performers were not what they seemed. For example, Barnum’s ‘Fiji Mermaid’ was merely a deceased monkey fused with the tail of a fish. There were many similar exhibits, and such promoters were subsequently labelled as frauds. Freak shows were a very American tradition, but one which permeated Europe and beyond.


On Film

I have included a selection of movies depicting freak shows, beginning with the seminal classic, Freaks (1932).

Can a fully grown woman truly love a midget? This, the question posed on the poster of Freaks. That midget is Hans (Harry Earles), a freak show performer, engaged to his height-matched co-star, Frieda (Daisy Earles). Despite their pending union, Hans’ head is turned by trapeze artist Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), who is of average height. The infamous wedding banquet scene is truly brilliant as Cleo’s true motives are revealed.

Before the cinematic screenings of the film, a message was displayed for patrons, which seemed sympathetic to the plight of individuals with deformities: ‘Their lot is truly a heart-breaking one’. However, towards the end of the prologue, it goes on to say ‘…modern science and teratology is rapidly eliminating such blunders of nature from the world.’ The effort of including such a message therefore seems inane, but during the 1930s people who were born with physical abnormalities were not readily accepted in mainstream society, hence the existence of the freak show. (The full message is included on the DVD).

The ‘freaks’ in Freaks are all real people – no special effects here – including a man named Rardion, ‘The Living Torso’, who had no limbs and performed in freak shows in Coney Island under PT Barnum. Despite his disability, he fathered five children, spoke four languages and was able to complete everyday tasks using his mouth and shoulders.

The Elephant Man (1980)

Based loosely on the life of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick, a young English man with neurofibromatosis, a disease which causes benign tumours to grow on the face and body. Whilst the film does stray from the truth – Joseph’s life during his freak show years was not nearly as awful as director David Lynch’s portrayal – it is a beautifully made, poignant film, with excellent performances by John Hurt as Merrick and Anthony Hopkins as Dr Frederick Treves, the man who saves him from his barbaric existence.


Big Fish (2003)

Directed by Tim Burton and based on the novel by Daniel Wallace, Big Fish is a film of tall tales told by Albert Finney (Ed Bloom) to his son, Will (Billy Crudup). The young Edward Bloom (Ewan McGregor) disappears into his own fantasy and begins a lengthy journey with Karl the Giant (Matthew McGrory). On his expedition, he encounters a circus, led by a werewolf named Amos Callaway (Danny DeVito), and Siamese twin singers Ping and Jing (Ada and Arlene Tai). Edward subsequently joins the circus, shovelling elephant manure and washing obese performers in exchange for information on his dream girl, Sandra.

As I have recently moved more than half way across the country, I don’t get many visitors. However, I still like to have coffee table books in my living room, which I flick through quite often. I would never advocate buying these types of books solely for decoration as they can be quite pricey. Buy books that interest you, then think about the aesthetics. I have included a photograph of my (very cheap Ikea) coffee table, stacked with books and a few other things. You may notice some items on the table from my post, Charity Shop Finds. I have detailed some of my books below in case you are interested.

Tips: It’s best to stack the books from largest to smallest so you can see what’s there, avoid having too many out at once, and you might want to vary your selection.

Coney Island: Lost and Found by Charles Denson
I purchased this book from a shop on the seafront at Coney Island when I visited in April. As well as reminding me of a great trip, it is full of fantastic photographs from the 1870s to the 2000s. It’s fascinating to see the changes to the boardwalk and the amusement park over the last century, and as well as the many photographs, the book contains a fair amount of information. One of the most famous historical icons of Coney Island is the Elephant Hotel, literally shaped like an elephant, which opened in 1884. Unfortunately, it was destroyed by a fire in 1896, which is why it also features in the Lost New York title below.

Berlin in the 20s by Rainer Metzger
This book was an unexpected gift that I was extremely pleased with. Berlin is one of my favourite cities and I am hoping to see a lot more of Germany in the near future. The front of the jacket features the George Grosz painting, ‘Metropolis’. I am very fond of German Expressionist art and film, and this is of course covered in the book. It features dozens of black and white photographs – of people, of cultural places, of architecture, and lots of art by prominent German artists of the era like Dix and Kirchner.

Lost New York by Marcia Reiss
Another title bought on location. This is a very noteworthy book, featuring photographs of long gone New York landmarks, some of which are architecturally stunning, like the Singer Building, built in 1908 and demolished a mere 60 years later. Another great loss to the city was Penn Station in 1966, which had fallen into disrepair. The station still exists in name, and there are talks of demolishing Madison Square Garden to make way for a brand new station. Of course, the biggest loss to the New York City skyline was the Twin Towers, destroyed (but never forgotten) in 2011.

This book belongs to my boyfriend, and it fits in to a cardboard sleeve with a rope handle, making it a great gift option. Although I wear Adidas trainers I would never have purchased this book, however, it is actually quite interesting. It documents the history of the company, with a short biography of the founder, Adi Dassler. Photographs include the first Adidas trainers worn at the 1928 Olympics, sprinter Jesse Owens’ spikes and Muhammad Ali’s boxing boots.

X-Ray Art by Nick Veasey
I picked this up a few years ago as I found the idea of x-raying random objects rather intriguing. The photographer – or x-rayer – Nick Veasey, seeks to discover the inner beauty of objects, and to create art using a technology which has now become so ingrained in our modern lives, no longer solely for medical purposes, but also for security. Everything from children’s toys, electronic equipment, musical instruments, and even an electric chair have been given the x-ray treatment. The x-rays of leaves and flowers are particularly beautiful.

The World’s Dreamiest Beaches by Birgit Adam and Claudia Piuntek
This book was also a gift. I am in love with the beach. I feel like I can say that because, for me, being near the beach is not weather-dependent. As well as the breathtaking images, what I like about this book is the variety – it features coastlines from every continent – and the inclusion of beaches from colder climes, such as Iceland, Latvia, and the Faroe Islands.

CCCP: Cosmic Communist Constructions Photographed by Frederic Chaubin
A very large, Taschen book of photography, which also belongs to my boyfriend. It features chapters on Entertainment and Culture; Science and Technology; Sports and Youth; Health and Resorts; and Rites and Symbols. The brutalist architecture is distinctive, imposing and mesmerising. Personal choices are the Russian Academy of Sciences, Chisinau Circus (Moldova), and the Palace of Weddings in Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan). Slightly lacking in information, but the architecture is incredible.

I also have a number of Art Deco coffee table books, as well as more text heavy ones. I will write a separate post solely on Art Deco books.


Yes, I was back at the fair. This time it was a real life travelling vintage one. Based in Berkshire, Carters [sic] Steam Fair has been on the go since 1977, featuring rides, stalls and games dating from the 1890s to the 1960s. Whilst some of the ride are steam-powered, such as the Yachts (1921) and the Galloper (1895), others rely on electricity.

I have been to funfairs, or ‘the shows’ as they are commonly named, many times but this fair felt much more authentic. The sweet smell of popcorn and candy floss, the blinking lights and the 1950s rock and roll music all added to the old-time atmosphere.

The Dive Bomber (1946) was originally owned by Billy Smart, the famous circus impressario.

This ride, the Jungle Thriller Noah’s Ark, dates from 1934 and has been restored to its art deco roots. It emulates motorcycle speedway rides of the 30s.

Penny Arcade

Luna Park game inspired by the famous Coney Island amusement park (opened 1903). There are now fairgrounds named Luna Park all over the globe.

‘Pussy’ game, in which you shoot cats with a handgun. How lovely. The moon in the background of the game is very George Melies, A Trip to the Moon (1902). This was filmed at around the same time as the first Luna Park opened in Brooklyn, which was named after a 1901 ride called, funnily enough, A Trip to the Moon.

Carters sometimes features a wall of death stunt show. This was not on during my visit so I may try to see this another time.

Upcoming fairs will include fireworks displays for bonfire night. See the website for dates.

If you enjoyed reading this post you may like one I wrote about Coney Island back in May.

I’ve always had a fascination with the travelling funfair. Back in the days before cinema and television, attending the funfair was a big deal. Not only was it a chance to let your hair down and enjoy the thrill of a ride, the fair was where you saw exotic animals in the flesh for the first time. In an era where global travel was not readily available, fairgrounds became a form of escapism that took the visitor to another world.

Of course, there was a darker side to the fair: as well as animal cruelty, freak shows were commonplace. The funfair as a symbol can also connote insanity, which is shown to great effect in feature films such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and Carnival of Souls.

I could spend hours writing about the history and different aspects of funfairs (I might do a series of posts at some point), but there is a reason for this particular post.

During my recent trip to Devon, I visited Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre in Lifton. Dingles features a plethora of fairground memorabilia, including vintage rides, games, vehicles and machinery, as well as road signs, art work and related ephemera.

The museum is housed in three buildings, the first of which is more like a ‘typical’ museum, with models and displays in glass cases as well some more interactive exhibits, such as carriages and living wagons you can climb into.

The second building displays larger rides and – here’s the fun part – they still run. The rides include a ghost train, galloper (carousel), waltzer, switchback and dodgems. You can also play traditional games such as the coconut shy, rifle shooting, and hook-a-duck. (Rides and games incur an additional cost).

Prizes for funfair games usually include goldfish, cuddly toys and coconuts. ‘Carnival Glass’ was a name given to second rate glassware, usually with an iridescent finish, given as a prize.

Two very different organs. Unfortunately I don’t have dates for these but the one on the right has a distinct Metropolis feel about it.

In the third building, which was more like a storage facility, there were a lot of items that looked as if they were waiting for repair. It’s sad to think of items languishing in storage but often independent museums lack the funding for conservation.

Overall, Dingles is an entertaining and intriguing museum, one that lets you take photographs and interact with the displays. I believe that the fair is an important part of social history, one that seems to be forgotten in an internet and video game obsessed age.

Dingles is open Thursday- Monday, April- October. Tickets cost £8 for an adult. 20% off online.