New Acquisition from Holden Brothers’ Circus

The Holden Brothers’ Circus, founded in 1892 by Adolphus Holden (1868-1938), was one of the longest running family circus’ in Australia. With thanks to his grandchildren, Francis, Barry and Maree, the Australian Performing Arts Collection is now home to a unique photographic collection capturing a specific moment in the nation’s performing arts history. The comprehensive collection of over 500 photographs, 600 negatives, archival material and a number of important props, provides an intimate insight into the life of a travelling circus in the mid-twentieth century.

Adolphus Holden
Adolphus Holden with ‘Nancy’ the pony, 1900

As a child Adolphus Holden lost part of his left leg in a railway accident in Melbourne and during his rehabilitation discovered a talent for acrobatics. Showcasing these skills, the circus Adolphus established included the trapeze act The Flying Gordons, featuring himself, his son Ernie and later performer Harry MacKenzie.

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Poster advertising Gordon the Great (Adolphus Holden), c 1900

During the early years, the circus toured extensively during the summer months, returning to Melbourne to perform vaudeville-style acts in theatres during the winter. The circus underwent numerous iterations over its lifetime with various family members continuing the circus.

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Roy (Yank) Condon and Francis Gerald Holden, c 1940
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Kenneth Francis Holden, c 1940

The photographs in this collection, dating from 1900s-90s, document life on the road throughout New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania with five generations of the Holden family.

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Barrie and Maree Holden (foreground), Queenscliff, VIC, 1950
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Francis David Holden (back right) and local children, VIC, 1950
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On the road to Pyramid Hill, VIC, 1950

Francis Gerald Holden (1906-1966) was one of a large number of siblings who joined the their father, Adolphus, in his circus. Francis regularly performed his rope spinning act under the name of Tex Gordon. Following in the family tradition, his family joined him on the road with his children later continuing the family circus until the early 1990s.

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Francis Gerald Holden with his children – Francis David (left), Maree (middle) and Barry (front right) – and his brother Lennie (back right), c 1950
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Francis Herald Holden (back centre) with daughter Maree (front centre) and local children, Werribee, VIC, 1950

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator


New Acquisitions from Holden Brothers’ Circus
8 February – 22 April | Hamer Hall, Level 6
Arts Centre Melbourne
FREE

 

In anticipation of the circus

Posters have always played a crucial role in the promotion of travelling circuses. High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus celebrates the recent donation of the Vern Ellis Collection, consisting of over 40 circus posters, to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Australian Performing Arts Collection and provides an insight into the rich history of circus in Australia.

Dating from the 1920s to 1960s, these posters (also known as bills) were part of pervasive campaigns that announced the imminent arrival of each circus. Advance agents employed by the circus were sent out several weeks ahead of the company to paste posters in prominent locations across towns: on walls, billboards, shop windows and telegraph poles.

Gwen Chaplin and Olive Ellis promoting Wirth’s Circus, Brisbane, 1940s
Gift of Mrs. Barbara St. Leon, 2015
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

During World War II when men were unavailable, Wirth’s Circus employed women to post bills in major cities. Wearing crisp white uniforms, they created a sense of excitement and additional publicity for the circus.

A well-designed poster differentiated a circus from its competitors and enticed potential visitors to attend. By the mid-twentieth century Australian circus posters had evolved from heavily text-based designs to more elaborate graphic imagery. Bold, eye-catching and colourful, these posters offered a glimpse into the circus tent, inviting audiences into a world of breathtaking skill and spectacle. Borrowing from the American circus poster and comic book traditions, posters often depicted complex narratives with aerial views of large performances contrasted with feature acts in close detail.

L-R: Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, c.1920s–1930s; Poster for Perry Bros Huge Circus and Zoo, Wellington, 1929; Poster for Holden Bros Combined Comedy Stage Show, 1930s; Poster for Bullen Bros Circus, Townsville, 1961
Vern Ellis Collection, 2017
Arts Centre Melbourne, Australian Performing Arts Collection

Early posters made use of bold text to differentiate each circus from its competitors. As the number of circuses increased, and international companies toured Australia, further distinction was required to set each circus apart. Imagery became more elaborate as printing technology improved, while the claims on posters grew wilder in an attempt to draw larger crowds using phrases such as ‘death defying, danger deriding’, ‘the greatest’ and ‘the only big responsible show coming this season’. The location and date of performances provided the specifics of the event but were less prominent. This information was often handwritten, printed or attached to posters at each town, allowing a generic poster to be used for an entire tour.

High Hopes: in anticipation of the circus is on display from 29 June – 15 August, 2017 in the Smorgon Family Plaza, Theatres Building, Arts Centre Melbourne.

Nicole Bowller
Assistant Curator