Animal Acts | Act 5: Wall of Death (Panthera leo)

November 21, 2013 § Leave a comment

The Wall of Death

The Wall of Death

“ROLL UP, ROLL UP! Thrill to the sight of FEARLESS EGBERT and JACK O’MALLEY: COLLIN’S famous death riders and the amazing RACING LION! In our very own SILODROME you will see our death defying dare devils – both human and feline – perform AMAZING feats that will DEFY THE LAWS OF GRAVITY!”

I first heard of a lion riding in a sidecar on the Wall of Death from the artist and curator Dominic Mason about a year or so ago. After a subsequent visit to the National Fairground Archive I discovered that the act was not uncommon during the peak of popularity of the Wall of Death rides in the USA and UK.  Since that time I have also had the pleasure of meeting Antony Harris, who had ridden the wall at an early age with his father Elias Harris, one of the original Wall of Death riders from a family of performers whose act included a wall-riding lioness. Apparently the rider carried a loaded pistol in case the lion became a danger to himself or to his audience …

The Wall of Deathmotordromesilodrome or Well of Death (aka “Maut ka Kuaa“, India) is a carnival sideshow featuring a silo- or barrel-shaped wooden cylinder, ranging from 20 to 36 feet (6.1 to 11 m) in diameter, inside of which motorcyclists, or the drivers of miniature automobiles, travel along the vertical wall and perform stunts, held in place by centripetal force. Favouring 1930s ‘American Indian’ motorbikes, Wall of Death riders were stars of the British Fairground, particularly in the North of England. They commanded a loyal fan base, earned clothing sponsorships, and even featured on collectable trading cards.  A similar act called the Globe of Death, which originally came to the UK as part of the Wembley Exhibition in 1922, with a subsequent appearance at the British Fair in 1926, has the riders looping inside a wire mesh sphere rather than a drum. This form of motorcycle entertainment had a separate and distinct evolution from carnival motordromes and derived from bicycle acts or “cycle whirls” in the early 1900s.

No one knows who actually invented either show but evidence suggest that the wall existed in the United States of America in the early 1900s with reports having been made of bicycles being used as early as 1908. There is even a suggestion made before 1900 of using bicycles on a type of Wall of Death, not for entertainment but for exercise! The earliest reference of the Wall of Death is the United States in 1928, it having arrived from the United States via Europe. Ned Williams, in his history of Pat Collins, wrote that the 1920s fairground scene roared into the 1930s with the arrival of the Wall of Death.

From the 1930s until the early 1970s they enjoyed a period of immense popularity and all of the major fairs would have had at least one Wall of Death as part of the overall attractions. There is no evidence as to when the Globe of Death first appeared but it is generally thought to have been around the same time or possibly even slightly before the wall. Many different stunts were tried – it was quite common for a lion to be taken on the wall in a side car while bears and monkeys would also be featured. The Austin Seven motor car was also adapted for riding on the wall and specially made Go-Karts were, and indeed still are, used.

There are only three Walls of Death in the United Kingdom today, and these are travelled by Graham Crispey, Ken Fox and Allan Ford. A typical performance comprises four or five separate events including straight wall riding, dipping and diving, the rider coming within inches of the safety wire with the rear wheel, a demonstration of Go-Karting, a demonstration of trick riding, and finally the Hell Riders Race, with two or sometimes even three riders on the wall at the same time.

Neil Calladine, National Fairground Archive

In India, the show is also known as the Well of Death (Hindi: मौत का कुआँ, Punjabi: ਮੌਤ ਦਾ ਖੂਹ) and can be seen in the various  melas (fairs) held across the country. Apart from motorcycles, the act may also feature other vehicles such as automobiles, as performed regularly in Adilabad in India since 2005. The show involves a temporary cylindrical structure about 25 feet high and 30 feet in diameter, or wider when cars are to be involved, built of hardwood planks. The audience stands upon the platform built around the circumference of the structure and gaze down into the well where the motorcyclists or cars drive.

The lion (Panthera leo) is one of the four big cats in the genus Panthera and a member of the family Felidae. With some males exceeding 250 kg (550 lb) in weight, it is the second-largest living cat after the tiger. Wild lions currently exist in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia (where an endangered remnant population resides in Gir Forest National Park in India) while other types of lions have disappeared from North Africa and Southwest Asia in historic times. Until the late Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, the lion was the most widespread large land mammal after humans. They were found in most of Africa, across Eurasia from western Europe to India, and in the Americas from the Yukon to Peru. The lion is a vulnerable species, having seen a major population decline in its African range of 30–50% per two decades during the second half of the 20th century. Lion populations are untenable outside designated reserves and national parks. Although the cause of the decline is not fully understood, habitat loss and conflicts with humans are currently the greatest causes of concern. Within Africa, the West African lion population is particularly endangered.

Lions live for 10–14 years in the wild, while in captivity they can live longer than 20 years. In the wild, males seldom live longer than 10 years, as injuries sustained from continual fighting with rival males greatly reduce their longevity. They typically inhabit savanna and grassland, although they may take to bush and forest. Lions are unusually social compared to other cats. A pride of lions consists of related females and offspring and a small number of adult males. Groups of female lions typically hunt together, preying mostly on large ungulates. Lions are apex and keystone predators, although they scavenge as opportunity allows. While lions do not typically hunt humans, some have been known to do so. Sleeping mainly during the day, lions are primarily nocturnal, although bordering on crepuscular in nature.

Highly distinctive, the male lion is easily recognised by its mane, and its face is one of the most widely recognised animal symbols in human culture. Depictions have existed from the Upper Paleolithic period, with carvings and paintings from the Lascaux and Chauvet Caves, through virtually all ancient and medieval cultures where they once occurred. It has been extensively depicted in sculptures, in paintings, on national flags, and in contemporary films and literature. Lions have been kept in menageries since the time of the Roman Empire, and have been a key species sought for exhibition in zoos over the world since the late eighteenth century. Zoos are cooperating worldwide in breeding programs for the endangered Asiatic subspecies.

Animal Acts
These sketches represent the first stages of preliminary work for a series of paintings that I am creating to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the National Fairground Archive, based in The University Library, University of SheffieldThis commission will form part of the Twentieth Anniversary Exhibition which will open in September 2014 and run for four months.
This new body of work has been inspired by a number of lively discussions with Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the archive. They reflect a shared interest in the changing perception of Animal Acts that has occurred in human consciousness over the last few decades. This change in consciousness towards performing animals has had broad implications throughout society, and acts (in itself) as a powerful indicator of the ambiguities that surround the relationship between the human animal and other species. 

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