Circus Work: Photographer Peter Lavery spends 50 years documenting Britain's circuses

© Peter Lavery

For anyone who has ever dreamt of running away with the circus or simply wondered what life is like for the jugglers, clowns, and acrobats, a new exhibition at The Harley Gallery in Worksop by acclaimed photographer Peter Lavery captures what goes on behind the scenes at the Big Top.

Lavery has spent the last 50 years following and photographing circuses the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland. His show, Circus Work, is the first to document this five-decade-long project. Taken in both black and white and colour these intimately detailed, large-scale photographs show circus performers relaxing while off duty, practising, getting ready to perform, part made-up and costumed, and revealingly off-guard.

Lisa Gee, Director at The Harley Gallery, said: “Peter Lavery’s pictures capture a world unknown to most of us. He takes us behind the curtain to see the grit amidst the glamour, the contrast between the mundane and the magical and reveals the hard work and humanity of this unique community.”

The son of a miner, Lavery has developed an enduring interest and passion for his subject since dropping in on a small indoor circus in his hometown of Wakefield in 1968: "I was immediately struck by the disparity between the outward exoticism, the finery, the sequined costumes, the plumes, the elaborate display and backstage ordinariness. At once I was enthralled by the sounds and the smell, but I had no idea the subject would capture and hold my imagination for the best part of five decades."

Circus Work is part of Circus250, a UK-wide celebration of 250 years of the circus. In 1768, on an abandoned patch of land near London’s Waterloo, showman, entrepreneur and equestrian rider Philip Astley did something entirely new. He gathered together a series of physical acts composed of jugglers, acrobats, clowns, strong men and bareback riders and drew out the very first circus ring. Astley had created a whole new art form – this was the world’s first circus; every circus, anywhere, began at this moment.

Circus Work is showing at The Harley Gallery on the Welbeck estate, between Nottingham and Sheffield, from 3 February until 15 April 2018.

Caroline Gerbola on Conchita Fossett Brothers Tralee Ireland 1986. © Peter Lavery

Caroline Gerbola on Conchita Fossett Brothers Tralee Ireland 1986. © Peter Lavery

Five Blackpool Tower Circusettes in their changing room Blackpool Tower 1974. © Peter Lavery

Five Blackpool Tower Circusettes in their changing room Blackpool Tower 1974. © Peter Lavery

© Peter Lavery

© Peter Lavery

Gabor Eotvos Senior Tibor Eotvos and Gabor Eotvos Junior Eotvos Billy Smarts Fairfield Hall Croydon 1971. © Peter Lavery

Gabor Eotvos Senior Tibor Eotvos and Gabor Eotvos Junior Eotvos Billy Smarts Fairfield Hall Croydon 1971. © Peter Lavery

Ruslan Daurbekov Moscow State Circus 1988. © Peter Lavery

Ruslan Daurbekov Moscow State Circus 1988. © Peter Lavery