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Northern Lights: Who is Miss La La and why is she centrepiece at a new exhibition?

Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas - Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. � The National Gallery, London. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1925.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas - Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando. � The National Gallery, London. Bought, Courtauld Fund, 1925.

Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas (1879) is arguably one of the world’s most famous circus paintings.

This remarkable artwork from The National Gallery portrays the astonishing performance of aerialist, acrobat and circus artist, Miss La La, suspended at a great height from a rope clenched between her teeth up in the upper echelons of the famous Parisian circus building.

But who was Miss La La and why is she the centrepiece of the new exhibition opening this week at Weston Park Museum?

Circus! Show of Shows is an exhibition that I have advised and shaped, working with the most amazingly talented group of people from Museum Sheffield who have made my vision into a stunning reality. Modern circus was invented in England in 1768 by Philip Astley and his wife Patty, and in less than ten years it had travelled to America, Mexico, China and Japan and back to our shores. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of this truly global phenomenon, our exhibition in Sheffield will reflect the rich diversity and complexity of circus.

Miss La La is one of the stars of our show; a woman of mixed race, her story is one of many hidden histories that challenge our view of how circus developed, what it represented then and represents today. Circus presented a space where women performed as equals and all nationalities worked together under the fraternity of the ring.

Sheffield played an important part in the development of the circus in the 19th century with innovations including a beautifully placed central venue in the city centre. The Amphitheatre became a venue where international acts could perform outside the restrictions of the theatre licensing, a home for people regardless of race and gender, and a place where all classes of people could mix.

Another star in our show is Pablo Fanque. Born to a black father and white mother in Norwich, this equestrienne rider and circus proprietor made the North of England his home. Beloved from Bolton to Leeds and Liverpool to Sheffield, his circus saw French, Spanish, American among other nationalities sharing the bill. In the 19th century circus was a unique industry where race was not a barrier to his success – the ‘fellowship of the ring had no colour bar’ wrote a contemporary chronicler.

Pablo’s achievements were largely forgotten after his death, but the acquisition of a poster by John Lennon would inspire the song For the Benefit of Mr Kite on Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and introduce him to a whole new audience.

Highlights from a rich array of material on Pablo held by Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library will go on display for the very first time in the exhibition alongside treasures from across the world. Over 250 items have been loaned from private collectors, national and international institutions and our own National Fairground and Circus Archive in the University of Sheffield Library.

But circus is not just a history lesson or something that we used to go to as a child. It remains a living, breathing part of our performance and entertainment culture. Circus has interfaced with countless other performance genres and art forms, from popular music to high fashion. Today, over 30 circuses still tour the UK, ranging from contemporary art-based shows linking narrative and breath-taking skills with contemporary issues, to the classic big top shows presented by Zippos Circus, which will make its annual visit to Endcliffe Park in August.

An exhibition of this skill and scope, like a circus, needs an amazing range of people to put it together and working with the team from Museums Sheffield has made me realise how much we owe to the people in libraries, archives, museums and heritage institutions who tirelessly preserve and curate our heritage.

Like a circus troupe, they work in partnership and produce beautifully curated exhibitions seamlessly presented for our amusement and entertainment. Without the amazing staff of Museums Sheffield, my mad idea to hold a circus exhibition would never have happened. From the dedication of Chief Executive, Kim Streets to the sheer brilliance of the curatorial and marketing team, and the amazing technicians who have worked around the clock to provide frames and a set to hold these treasures.

So thank you, especially to the wonderful curators Lucy and Teresa, who have have shaped and curated the material for as wide an audience as possible, and to Chris in marketing, who together have made me feel part of a troupe, putting on a show for the benefit of the people of Sheffield and beyond. Enjoy!