Recently I acquired one object that seems to me to be a rather remarkable piece indeed. It is a moulded Staffordshire jug, c.1840 glazed in a fetching sky blue. On it we see a man, decked out in Roman dress, effectively surrounded by a series of leopards, lions and…is that a sheep?
"Who put the dude in the toga in charge?"
Everything might make a lot more sense if I tell you that the man shown here is the American animal trainer Isaac A. Van Amburgh and that this jug is a sort of Victorian souvenir - a memento of one of his shows.
Van Amburgh was the first trainer to introduce big cat shows into circuses and, as some may see it, the Root of the Problem with many travelling shows today. When he came to the UK in 1838 Queen Victoria herself was a huge fan, as was the Duke of Wellington. And who could blame them? Here was a man who stuck his head in lions' mouths and commanded the beasts to lick his boots - which they did. He even did a snappy little number where he actually made a lion lie down with a lamb, as per the Bible (which he cited often to justify his - Man's - role as Master of the Beasts.)
"I'm VERY FIERCE for a sheep, you know."
From all this one would suppose that Van Amburgh loved and respected his critters - but that was, sadly, far from the case. He used loathsome techniques to gain mastery over his big cats (which I really do not wish to reiterate here) and it was scared and broken animals that helped him gain his great acclaim. Even the Victorians thought his practices were unusually cruel for the time. Somewhat oddly - and mostly infuriatingly - Van Amburgh met his death not by his jungle beasties but by heart attack in his bed at the age of 54. Sorry, lions.
"Hey, you - down in front!"
He lived long enough, however, to hear his name immortalized in a song entitled "The Menagerie," written by Dr. W. J. Wetmore, M.D., the first verse of which runs as follows:
"Van Amburgh is the man, who goes to all the shows
He goes into the lion's cage, and tells you all he knows;
He sticks his head in the lion's mouth, and keeps it there a-while,
And when he pulls it out again, he greets you with a smile."
A scene reminiscent of the Tarot's Strength trump
PS --> I was also very, very pleased to discover that the V&A has my exact jug in its collection. Sure, their handle-lion still has his tail attached, but who's counting? There's more information on the piece there, too - click on over and have a look!