Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Circus Cheroot Holder: Mystery Solved!

  by Dr. Sarunas “Sharkey” Peckus

The evolution of this essay began several years ago when I purchased a meerschaum cheroot holder on eBay. The motif was four circus acrobats executing an intricate routine. The fitted case bears the inscription ‘Emanuel Czapek, Praha - Prikopy 35, Prag - Graben 35’, one of the most prestigious and respected nineteenth century meerschaum carvers of the region, south-eastern Europe.

Meerschaum cheroot holder showing an acrobatic routine involving three male and one female acrobat.

Specifically, as the carving indicates in this complex routine, a lady acrobat is precariously positioned while holding up three male acrobats and their paraphernalia: a table and a variety of barbells. At the base of the holder is the inscription: ‘TROUPE LAFAILLE’. 

What this particular act signified, and who this troupe was piqued my interest and curiosity, and I began an investigation of sources available to me. 

To my excitement, Google produced the first clue, indicating that this group was a member of the [P.T.] Barnum and [James Anthony] Bailey, ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’; since 1907, Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey was listed under ‘performers and acts with circuses’ (Billboard, July 16, 1910). Hence, this was proof that this group was real, not a motif imagined or invented by the carver, and that Troupe Lafaille were professional performers affiliated with this circus renowned for its high-flying trapeze acts. As a collector and at that time, I was content with this knowledge, having gained this much information for my own purpose. Were someone to ask about it then, I could offer this titbit in response.

A number of years passed without follow-on research. However, the thought of mining this further kept recurring now and then. There just had to be more to this story, and somewhere out there in the ether I would find it, if I persisted and persevered, because the Internet was burgeoning with all sorts of information and data in tsunami-like fashion. The impetus for a renewed attempt to research the background of this cheroot holder and, perhaps, to discover the association between Czapek, a meerschaum craftsman in Prague and a (determined later) Belgian circus troupe, an intriguing linkage - if such existed - came in October 2009 with the decision by the International Academy of the Pipe’s Meerschaum Working Group to write a collaborative monograph on iconography and meerschaum.

The first Google search in late 2009 resulted in a phenomenal find, a black and white postcard for sale illustrating, in the exacting detail as that depicted on the holder, this acrobatic group doing its routine. 

Black and white German postcard (right) showing the Lafaille troop in the same acrobatic position as the cheroot holder (left).
The title on the postcard in German read ‘Truppe Lafaille, Original, Die Besten Olympische Spiele’, translated literally, ‘Troupe Lafaille, Original, The Best Olympic Games’. In addition, the postcard included the portraits of these very four artists. Without question, this was, indeed, at least at that moment, a great find, like encountering the proverbial needle in the research haystack.

Further searches offered a number of leads that did not exist at the time of my first attempt. I then found a postcard in English with the title ‘Troupe Lafaille, Continental Acrobatic Sketch, Manager: J. Lafaille’

Black and white English postcard including a photograph of the troop manager J. Lafaille.

without additional details, but this second postcard made my day nonetheless.

Next I found a short notice in the Berliner Tageblatt, August 2, 1908:

Vier Mann hoch und auf eine zwei Meter hohen Treppe hinauf; atemlos folgt man der Menschen pyramide. Auf lebendem Piedestal - arbeitet mit erstaunlicher Kraft die Truppe Lafaille.

This, translated literally, is:

One observes breathlessly a two-meter high pyramid of four individuals. With amazing power this human pedestal, the Troupe Lafaille is performing their act.

Following this came a very pleasant surprise, a black and white photograph of the entire troupe accompanied by a young Belgian acrobat in the circus archives of the Andre De Poorter division of the Museum of East Flanders. Gent, Belgium. 

Black and white photograph of the entire troupe accompanied by a young Belgian acrobat in the archives of the Museum of East Flanders, Gent.

This mystery was being solved, piece- by-piece, and I sensed that with all this new, additional information in hand, I could craft a story from what I had now learned that would be stimulating reading to any inquisitive individual interested in either circus history or meerschaum iconography.

Then, in contact with the University of Illinois, it kindly provided me with two Barnum and Bailey programmes,

one for 1909 and one for 1910, each with the following notation:

Another new and novel act of strength. Numerous feats entirely new to America, concluding, Mlle. La Faille forms a bridge and alone supports the entire troupe and paraphernalia, Belgium’s greatest artists, The Lafaille Troupe.

1909 and 1910 programs for ‘THE BARNUM AND BAILEY GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH’.
 These two programs conclusively establish the fact that these Belgian artists were at the peak of their career and had earned a reputation of having the highest degree of artistic endeavour and strength.

The culmination of my research was a color poster that the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Saratoga, Florida, sent to me. 

1909 poster for Barnum and Bailey circus showing the Troupe La Faille in the center.

The greatest pleasure in owning this poster is seeing the troupe, center stage, performing its signature routine just as it appears on the holder and on the first postcard. The poster bears the inscription:

The Barnum & Bailey, Greatest Show on Earth. New Foreign Feature Acts Now Seen For The First Time in America

...and it is dated 1909.
I am now at peace. My quest for information at this juncture is adequately sated. I may never learn the connection between Czapek and Lafaille, but I confidently know who this troupe was and why it received so much international attention. Given the burgeoning expansion of the Internet, there is no doubt that more data can be found, but for the purpose of this intellectual exercise, what I have uncovered is ample and sufficient. I may undertake a third investigation at some later date, but at this moment, I bask in the light of discovery, because what I have discovered, learned and described herein is not (meerschaum) art imitating life, but meerschaum art duplicating life or, in this instance, lives.

There are a number of immediate questions that can be asked. Here are some that come to mind. Why was the holder carved? Was it a commemorative piece? If so, what was the occasion or event? Was it commissioned and, if so, by whom? Why a carver in Prague, when many in Belgium at the very same time were as proficient in producing finely executed meerschaum pipes and holders? Did everyone in the troupe have one?

I have to believe that by now all the members of this troupe have assumed their rightful place in the great acrobatic circus tent above. Where are they buried, and might their graves be appropriately marked for posterity as one of the greatest acrobatic teams ever may, one day, using advanced search techniques, be known or, more likely, may never be known. Anything is possible, and it is my sincere hope that some future reader of this essay will have the intellectual wherewithal to assume the mantle, the challenge, and the curiosity to take this next step. The iconographic relationship between the holder and its history has begun, but it should not end here.


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