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From Cage to Collectibles A Look at Isaac Van Amburgh Antiques

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In the annals of entertainment history, few figures roar as loudly as Isaac Van Amburgh, the legendary lion tamer of the 19th century. Born amidst the industrial fervor of New York, Van Amburgh’s audacious acts with wild beasts not only reshaped the circus world but also left an indelible mark on popular culture. This feature delves deep into the life and times of this enigmatic figure, and especially intriguing is the exploration of the diverse range of Van Amburgh antiques and Van Amburgh memorabilia. From rare lithographs to Staffordshire figurines, the antiques connected to him provide a fascinating window into a bygone era of entertainment.

Van Amburgh The American Lion Tamer a Staffordshire pottery flatback figure
Van Amburgh The American Lion Tamer a Staffordshire pottery flatback figure. Sold for £190 at Franklin Browns, August 2020.

Isaac A. Van Amburgh, born in 1801, in New York, burst into prominence during the early 19th century as one of the first and most notable lion tamers of his time. As a young man, Van Amburgh displayed an uncanny ability to manage and control wild animals, especially big cats, which was an unprecedented feat during that era.

A Pair Of 19th Century Staffordshire Pottery Lion And Lamb Groups commemorating the visit to Great Britain of American lion tamer Isaac van Amburgh
A Pair Of 19th Century Staffordshire Pottery Lion And Lamb Groups each lion seated on its haunches, with a recumbent lamb at his side, raised on gilt lined oval bases. Denoted as rare among collectors, the pair commemorates the visit to Great Britain of American lion tamer Isaac van Amburgh in the 1840s where he caused a sensation with his spectacular act. Sold for £2,200 at Woolley & Wallis, September 2021.

In the 1830s, he made a significant mark when he entered a cage with several big cats, including lions, tigers, and leopards, performing acts that seemed to defy the wild nature of these beasts. Unlike many of his successors, Van Amburgh relied on a more confrontational style, showcasing his dominance over the creatures, often involving acts of physical bravery, even stepping on the backs of the lions.

19th Century Victorian English Staffordshire Pottery creamware luster jug moulded in relief depicting Van Amburgh the famous lion tamer
19th Century Victorian English Staffordshire Pottery creamware luster jug moulded in relief depicting Van Amburgh the famous lion tamer. Sold for £70 at East Bristol Auctions, February 2021.

It was his daring attitude and groundbreaking performances that earned him a name internationally, making him a significant attraction in both the United States and Europe. His performances drew the attention of royalty, including Queen Victoria who watched his act in 1838 and was profoundly impressed.

Van Amburgh’s act was revolutionary. Not only did he inspire generations of animal trainers and circus performers, but he also influenced the way society perceived the relationship between man and beast. The image of Van Amburgh, the fearless man standing tall amidst wild animals, became emblematic of mankind’s triumph over nature and the wild. This was a sentiment that resonated deeply during an era marked by rapid industrialization and human progress.

Furthermore, he popularized the figure of the ‘lion tamer’ in popular culture, leading to its replication in various forms of entertainment, from literature to theatre and beyond. The image of the lion tamer, with a chair and whip in hand, can be traced back to Van Amburgh’s pioneering acts.

Van Amburgh antiques and Van Amburgh memorabilia – The fame of Isaac Van Amburgh was not just limited to the circus tent or the theatre. His image and acts became widely popular and were translated into various forms of merchandise and memorabilia during his lifetime and even after. These include:

  1. Lithographs and Engravings: Many artists and printmakers captured Van Amburgh’s audacious performances. Original prints from the 19th century depicting his acts are highly sought after by collectors and can fetch substantial prices.
  2. Ceramic Figurines: Van Amburgh’s act was immortalized in pottery and porcelain. Staffordshire pottery figures, for instance, depicted him in a cage with lions, and these figurines are now considered rare antiques.
  3. Original Advertising and Promotional Posters: Van Amburgh appeared and headlined at many theatres and events and original bills and posters are of particular interest to collectors.
A rare early Victorian circus advertising poster or flyer Mr Van Amburgh the Great Lion-Tamer
A rare early Victorian circus advertising poster or flyer Mr Van Amburgh the Great Lion-Tamer. t Royal Circus Albion Tavern, Gloucester, June 1840. Sold for £300 at Lays Auctioneers, November 2022.

Isaac Van Amburgh’s life, filled with daring acts and roaring applause, came to an end away from the spotlight he was so accustomed to. On November 29, 1865, at the age of 64, Van Amburgh passed away. The exact cause of his death remains unclear, with some historical accounts suggesting natural causes and others hinting at potential complications related to his years of close contact with wild animals.

Staffordshire Van Amburgh commemorative mug circa 1839 printed and painted As he appeared on the night of the Queens visit to Drury Lane Theatre. Sold for £270 at Peter Wilson, April 2017.
Staffordshire Van Amburgh commemorative mug circa 1839, printed and painted ‘As he appeared on the night of the Queen’s visit to Drury Lane Theatre’ 10cm high

Despite the uncertainty surrounding the specifics of his demise, there’s no doubt that Van Amburgh’s death marked the end of an era. News of his passing was met with widespread mourning, a testament to the profound impact he had on both the entertainment industry and the public’s imagination.

In conclusion, Isaac Van Amburgh was not just a lion tamer but a cultural icon of his time. His influence seeped into various facets of society, from the arts to popular merchandise. Even today, as collectors hunt for Van Amburgh antiques bearing his mark or image, his legacy roars on, reminding us of the audacious man who dared to tame the wild.

Related
Victoriana, Victorian Staffordshire and Victorian Collectables


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