It’s a family a-fair!

Charlie Cairoli Jnr with model of his father (left) and Professor Vanessa Toulmin
Charlie Cairoli Jnr with model of his father (left) and Professor Vanessa Toulmin
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Blackpool hopefully won’t be doing Sheffield any favours in the FA Cup round four replay tomorrow but one of its most famous characters (and his son) have lent a helping hand to a major exhibition in the city.

Circus Showmen: Innovators Who Shaped the Circus, brings the world’s greatest showmen back to life, celebrating all the fun of the fair through personalities who defined circus for their generation.

The collection of ephemera, costumes and props, covers 250 years of British circus history and is on display at the National Fairground Archive, Western Bank Library at the University of Sheffield until April 30.

Curated by Professor Vanessa Toulmin – who organises much of Blackpool’s Showzam! festival which starts at the end of this week – and Amanda Bernstein, the exhibition takes visitors back in time to the late 18th century when circus content and performance first developed as an art form.

It begins with ‘the father of modern circus’ Philip Astley and moves chronologically to one-time fairground showmen Lord George Sanger, Bertram Mills, Billy Smart and finally to Gerry Cottle, a stockbroker’s son from London.

“Their stories demonstrate that circus has always been the place to which the most talented artists and performers often ran away,” says Professor Vanessa.

“And no circus exhibition can be complete without including history of the most famous venue for circus in the UK – Blackpool Tower.”

The exhibition, which is open to the public, features a collection of posters dating back to 1810s two full sized models of Coco the Clown and Charlie Cairoli loaned from Clowns International and two original This is Your Life books which were presented to Billy Smart and Charlie Cairoli respectively.

Charlie Jnr also lent various items of his father’s clown clothing to the exhibition. Professor Vanessa Toulmin added: “The National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield is thrilled to be given the opportunity to show our superb circus collection which includes our fantastic posters dating from 1810 to 1990.

“The Bertram Mills posters in particular are wonderful pieces of art which date from the 1930s.

This exhibition is a celebration of the world’s greatest ever showmen who shaped the circus and created magical and exhilarating world-class shows and events. I am extremely excited to be curating and producing this must-see exhibition. The collection of wonderful artefacts, props and costumes means it has something to offer visitors of all ages and is simply not to be missed.”

The exhibition is open from 9am to 7pm Monday to Friday and noon to 6pm Saturday and Sundays. It will be closed for the Easter Break from 5pm on April 5 and will reopen at 9am on April 10.

The National Fairground Archive (NFA) is a unique collection of photographic, printed, manuscript and audiovisual material covering all aspects of the culture of travelling show people, their organisation as a community, their social history and everyday life; and the artefacts and machinery of fairgrounds.