FOR over two centuries, audiences have flocked to the Big Top for high-wire thrills and slapstick clowning.

The 250th anniversary of the circus is celebrated at Decades of Delight, a new exhibition at Cartwright Hall, which features Billy Smart's costumes and props, and circus posters produced by Bradford company WE Berry.

“Circus entertainment originated with equestrian tricks - people showing off horseback skills in fields - later developing into trapeze stunts. In America they had Buffalo Bill-style shows,” says curator Sonja Kielty. “2018 is the 250th anniversary of the travelling big tent circus.”

The Big Top was invented by American showman Joshuah Purdey Brown in 1825 and came to the UK in 1838, featuring trick riders, acrobats and rope walkers. In the 1940s Billy Smart bought a secondhand big top to keep his fun fair going during the war, and he later combined circus and fairground. When Billy Smart’s circuses were later shown on television, drawing up to 20 million viewers, it boosted ticket sales for live shows. The family circus was so popular its Big Top could seat 5,000 people.

Decades of Delight includes items loaned by circus king Billy Smart’s grandaughter, Baccara Smart. There’s Billy’s ringmaster costume, with his staff and hat; a 1910 carousel horse; a pink tutu worn by Baccara’s mother, a horse dancer; and a clown outfit, with long shoes, worn by her brother. A gold showgirl costume with headpiece has matching ‘horse bracelets’ and plumes.

Also on display are scrapbooks and programmes from Baccara’s collection and her own paintings and sketches of circuses around the world that she has visited. Her oil-on-canvas paintings, which are for sale, offer a behind-the-scenes glimpse of circus life; showing performers waiting in the wings and taking a break from putting up tents. “They show a side to circus life most of us don’t get to see,” says Sonja. “A huge amount of work goes into a circus; costumes and props are all handmade, then there’s the physical graft of putting up the tent and the preparation of performances.”

Also on display are circus posters designed by WE Berry, of Nesfield Street, Manningham. Specialising in cinema posters, including those for British films from Rank, Ealing and Gainsborough, the company also produced most UK and European circus posters for several decades. The familiar clown face of Charlie Cairoli appears on a poster for Gerry Cottle’s circus coming to Peel Park.

Many posters and programmes feature animals traditionally used in big tops - among them 'The World’s Only Performing Highland Bulls', 'Prieto’s Unrideable Mules' and 'Mademoiselle Camille Leroux And Her Celebrated Spanish Dance on Horseback'. There are illustrations of a chimpanzee in a ringmaster’s jacket banging a drum, lions and tigers on horseback, a rare 1930s image of polar bears and, from 1971, a troupe of performing pigs.

“There was huge excitement when the circus came to town,” says Sonja. “In Victorian times circuses had animals like elephants, bears and lions - it wouldn’t be acceptable now but back then people were amazed. Today we wouldn’t want such animals used for entertainment, but they are part of circus history.

“Some posters and cuttings show circus animals resting in fields; they were billed as ‘zoos’ and people were charged to see them. No opportunity was missed. I’ve spoken to people who remember seeing the “elephant parade” along Manningham Lane. Elephants were taken off a train at Forster Square station and walked up to the big tent at Lister Park. Quite a sight!

“Circuses are traditionally promoted as ‘The world’s greatest...’, ‘The most amazing...’ They presented thrills and wonders from around the world,” adds Sonja. “Going to the circus is still a great experience; holding your breath watching trapeze artists, sitting in a huge tent with your feet on grass. It’s unlike any other form of live entertainment. It’s more rugged than the theatre, and you’re in the round so you see the faces of others in the audience.”

A programme dated February 1843 promotes 'The French Reaper on Horseback'. Other line-ups include 'A Car Drawn by Living Lions', 'A Trial of Skill on the Elastic Board, 'Tagora’s Human Volcano' and 'The 12 Milimetre Girls'.

The exhibition has been assembled with the support of Professor Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground and Circus Archive, who will be at Cartwright Hall on March 10 to give a talk on women in circuses. On display is a poster featuring Zazel, the first female human cannonball in 1877. In an age when women weren’t allowed to compete in professional sport, Rossa Matilda Richter, known as Zazel, was launched from a cannon aged 14.

Circuses influenced trends and fashions over the years. Antique toys on display include a little clown doll, and a wooden elephant on wheels.

Decades of Delight is accompanied by Cuppola, a colourful installation celebrating Bradford aerial circus company Skinning The Cat, which performed from 1988-2012.

* Decades of Delight: 250 Years of Circus runs until April 22, 2018.

For 25 decades the wonderful amazing art and entertainment form known as circus has thrilled, delighted and enchanted audiences all over the world. But what do we know about its history and development and the many stories of dare devilry that were found in the circus ring. From the founder of Circus himself Philip Astley an equestrian from Newcastle under Lyme, to the real life daring young man on his flying trapeze who gave his name to the leotard, learn the secrets of the ring, the lifestyle and the stories of the circus, the identity of the original human cannonball act in 1877 and when the big top was invented. Come and discover the part played by Berry’s of Bradford the designers of choice for the leading British Circus families whose posters proclaimed the coming of leading shows across the United Kingdom and see examples of their work across the years.

Social history objects from Bradford’s museum collections will be included plus some items on loan by private lenders. Bringing us to the current day, view contemporary illustration by Emily Sutton and paintings by Baccara Smart.