“It was with an element of pride, that I had been taught to read, write and paint”James H. McKenzie (228)
There is a sense from reading James McKenzie’s memoir that from an early age he was drawn to hobbies that allowed him to satisfy his creative desires. James notes how initially art and sketching during his childhood allowed him to forget his situation as it gave him the chance to immerse himself in something that was his own way of expression and escapism.
“What few spare moments I had I was sketching”James H. McKenzie (23A)
During his time in the circus, James states that he was asked by the proprietor to ‘paint the front of the circus’ (101) and it was from this moment on that James discovered a new sense of confidence in his abilities, as he independently had to complete eight large paintings during the course of a ‘long winter’ (101). There is sense from James words that he did not believe he was worthy of completing such a grand piece of art, as he implies that the proprietor must have wanted it done ‘cheap’ (101). Although James recalls men poking fun at his paintings of clowns and horses, it seems that his work impressed the proprietor as he told him that ‘they suited him admirably’ (101). This commission in many ways shaped James, as it allowed him to see how his dedication and hard work was constructive, as he had achieved something that others might have deemed a daunting and demanding task.
“I started copying the circus posters with all the confidence possible, for I thought what a grand offer”James H. McKenzie (101)
Once James became his own showman, he decided that he would combine his passion for art with his love for the works of Charles Dickens. The writings of Charles Dickens profoundly influenced James throughout his life, as he discloses in his memoir that for many years he illustrated a collection of paintings in which “he copied the illustrations in the Household Edition” (321). James states that he at first saw his collection as a ‘hobby’ and not for the purpose of public display. However, as his collection began to expand to ‘paper mache’ (321) models of the principal characters, James could see the potential of creating and exhibiting a Dickens Gallery. A novel by Charles Dickens that especially influenced James was David Copperfield, as, during the preparation of his exhibit, he decided to construct and build a “Boat similar to Fred Barnard’s Frontispiece” (322).
There is a sense that Dickens played an important role in the lives of circus folk, as he supported and wrote about the fascination of the fair. Paul Schlicke explores how when the amusements of Victorian society were under attack and labelled as vulgar ‘Dickens, the great popular entertainer, was their champion’ (3), as he shared his delight in the fair and offered his ‘support of the ordinary men and women who participate in the national occasion’ (3). James admired Dickens’s honest words as he somehow managed to remove the barrier of prejudice that was associated with the circus community.
James states that he “finished the Boat and two hundred and fifty pictures and busts of many characters were on
‘James H. McKenzie’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:473
McKenzie, James H. ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, 1:473
Schlicke, Paul (1988) Dickens and Popular Entertainment, Taylor & Francis Group, Florence. pp.2 – 16.
Proof read by Sera – click here to read Sera’s Freak Show & the Fairs blog post
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