Kate Berridge on Ricky Jay, Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women; Extraordinary Exhibitions - Slightly Foxed Issue 12

The Irresistible Heptaplasiesoptron

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If Sydney Smith’s idea of heaven was eating pâté de fois gras to the sound of trumpets, my own more mundane vision of bliss is undisturbed delving in the boxes of nineteenth-century broadsides and entertainment ephemera that are to be found in a few special collections. The occasional requirement to wear white cotton gloves adds an extra frisson of expectation but, contradicting the usual rules of desire, anticipation is seldom more satisfying than tangible access. The obligatory silence is sexy too, broken only by the alluringly low whisper of those who have spent years observing library rules. Boxes marked ‘miscellaneous’ invariably yield the best finds, for scarcity means there is rarely more than one item for each entertainment, and many defy categorization.

Here are some of my recent discoveries. An 1829 orange handbill for Signor Cappelli’s Learned Cats who turn the spit, strike an anvil, roast coffee and display ‘many other agreeable qualities’ every hour at 248 Regent Street. A charming engraving of the Whale Lounge – a ninety-foot skeleton of ‘a gigantic whale’ converted into an elegant pavilion that was the talk of the town when it opened at Charing Cross in 1831, inviting would-be Jonahs ‘to inspect and sit in the belly of the whale where twenty-four musicians perform a concert’ and where the chance to peruse a selection of natural history and a VIP visitors’ book was an extra draw. Finally, a poignant reminder that it was not always all right on the night, an 1836 handbill for a show at the Rosemary Branch tavern, Islington, announcing that ‘Madame Rossini who has now fortunately recovered from the accident she unfortunately met with on Monday night last will perform some wonderful evolutions on the tight rope accompanied by Mr Davis who will make a grand display of pyrotechnical art on her attaining the summit.’

While Time Out tempts us each week with all that London has to offer, the conventional cultural showcases are as nothing compared to the dazz

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About the contributor

Kate Berridge has contributed to a variety of publications, including the Spectator, the Sunday Telegraph and Vogue, but she is far happier researching the nineteenth century than reporting the twenty-first. Having recently completed Waxing Mythical: The Life and Legend of Madame Tussaud, she is already pining for the stacks and plotting a reason to return.

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