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Painting - Behind the Scenes at Astley's

Behind the Scenes at Astley's

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    London (probably, painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1840 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:


  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil on canvas mounted on board

  • Credit Line:

    Presented by Dr David Mayer III

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This painting includes a portrait of John Esdaile Widdicomb (1787-1854), Astley's well-known riding master and conductor of the ring, wearing a red coat and gold epaulettes. According to Blanchard's Life and Reminiscences, 1891, Widdicomb was an actor who: 'played the dandylover in pantomime' to the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi at the Coburg Theatre before he went to Astley's where he became an excellent riding master. He was renowned for his good looks which he preserved well into his later years, and the poet Robert Browning described him in a letter to his wife in August 1846 as having a face: ‘just Tom Moore's, plus two painted cheeks, a sham moustache, and hair curled in wiry long ringlets.’ When there was no evening performance at Astley's he was frequently seen at Vauxhall Gardens. The other sitters in this painting have been identified as the clown Twist, seated, the actor and equestrian John Cartlich standing next to Widdicomb who stands next to the seated figure of the chief equestrian and proprietor of Astley's Andrew Ducrow (1824-1842).

This painting is undated but has been dated to approximately 1840, before the fire that destroyed Astley's Circus for the third time in 1841. Ducrow had a mental breakdown atter the fire and died in January the following year, and Cartlich, who had become famous for creating the role Mazeppa at Astley's Circus in 1831, went to the USA to become proprietor of the National Theatre in Boston.

Physical description

Oil painting depicting the backstage of Astley's. The painting depicts performers and the ringmaster in a variety of costumes. The central figure holds a tankard and is dressed in 16th century-inspired costume. The seated white-face clown wears a striped outfit with matching tights. To the right are two men, one seated and one standing, who appear engaged in conversation with the central figure. The surface of the painting is cracking.

Place of Origin

London (probably, painted)


ca. 1840 (painted)



Materials and Techniques

Oil on canvas mounted on board

Descriptive line

Painting entitled 'Behind the Scenes at Astley's', depicting performers at Astley's Circus including Twist, John Cartlich, John Esdaile Widdicomb and Andrew Ducrow. Oil on canvas. Anonymous, ca.1840.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Ashton, Geoffrey. Catalogue of Paintings at the Theatre Museum, London. ed. James Fowler, London : Victoria and Albert Museum, 1992. 224p. ill. ISBN 1851771026


Oil; Canvas


Oil painting


Paintings; Entertainment & Leisure; Circus


Theatre and Performance Collection

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