All the world’s a circus

Katherine Hamilton loves people. She loves the way they interact. She loves communities. She loves exotic locales. She has travelled the world capturing in vibrant colour how people live their lives.

However, during the past two years, Katherine, who lives in Reydon, near Southwold, has found a new global community living just up the coast in Great Yarmouth. She has just completed an extensive project capturing the thrill of life at the Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth.

Chinese acrobats perform alongside Portuguese trapeze artists, who are swinging past French jugglers and Spanish clowns. And mixed between these exotic incomers are locals from Norfolk and Suffolk.

“It’s a whole exciting world sitting right on our doorstep,” Katherine says with bright-eyed enthusiasm. In her travel paintings Katherine loves markets. “It’s where people come together. It’s where people meet, talk, socialise, interact. It’s where you capture the full colour and vibrancy of a different culture. It’s where people are on show.”

In a circus the meeting place is the ring. It’s the performance space where the colourful artistes perform their feats of derring-do, where they create their professional identity.

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If you compare Katherine’s travel paintings with her new circus pictures there is a strong sense of continuity. The colours, the light and life she evokes, show that the same characteristics which fuel her interest in world travel are also present in this enclosed circus world.

“I have always loved the circus since I was a small child. I love the sense of wonder that it conjures up. I have known that the Hippodrome was there for a long time. The someone I knew went to a performance and was raving about it, so I went along to see what I was missing and I was just entranced by what I saw.

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“I went up initially to see one performance but I was so taken with it all, I sought out the owner of the circus and asked whether he would allow me to draw in there and he basically gave me an open ticket. So for two years I went to dozens of performances each season and got a lot of ideas. I filled up lots of sketchbooks and then started working on the paintings.”

She said that she realised very quickly that the colour and the sense of community that informed her other work was very much present in microcosm at the Hippodrome. “The circus is a very global place. I was in a dress rehearsal and there were people speaking Portuguese, French, Yarmouth, Russian – it was a real mix. Then I realised that this was not a disparate collection of individuals but a real family. They were a great tribe of people who were working and interacting together. They had their own national backgrounds and viewpoints but they also shared a common heritage in the circus and spoke the same circus language – that’s what the show depends on and I got totally transported into that world.”

She said that when she visited a country for the first time, there was a smell about it – something distinctive that made that culture unique. “There was a smell about the theatre that triggered off all the right responses in me.

“I felt there was something inherently risky in the series, simply because there is something risky about the theatre and the circus about any live performance. There is a grittiness to it that belies the glamour of the performance and the pictures.”

She said that as with a community or culture she visits, the Hippodrome has a history which informs the present. The building has been home to countless performances dating back over one hundred years. There are stories of Charlie Chaplin performing there in the early years of the 20th century with Fred Karno’s Circus and Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff was born at the theatre, literally into the stage trunk of his musical hall performer parents.

“Thankfully, the building has not been mucked around with, it’s pretty much how it looked in the early 1900s and it was the atmosphere and space which completely fired me up when I first went in there. It’s a magical place. They say it has a ghost, everything you would expect in an old building, a building which has lived, it has a past, and yet is still bursting with life.”

She said that, from the outset, she deliberately took the view that she would view the circus as a spectator. She didn’t want to look at backstage life, she didn’t want to get to know the details of the performers lives, or study their background or training regimes.

She wanted to capture that sense of wonder, the spectacle that is presented to an audience when they visit The Hippodrome. “It was the space that first captured my attention, then of course you become transfixed by the acrobats and I love how they are able to project their personality through the act and across such a vast space. So I came to it very much as a spectator. That’s the experience I wanted to capture.”

She said that chronicling life backstage was another project and one that she may undertake a little later. “I wanted to divorce myself from the people as individuals and view them as just as performers.”

She said that being a former dancer, she was dazzled by the sense of movement that has worked its way into the paintings. Each work seems to be bursting with energy and it barely still. You get the feeling that the frantic activity depicted in each picture has been only arrested for the split second it took to commit the moment to Katherine’s sketchbook.

Katherine is used to working fast and working in public having drawn fishermen hauling their boats ashore and dividing their catch on the beach, to capturing the hustle and bustle of market day, to observing children at play in the streets or couples out walking or groups of women around a well.

When she travels, she deliberately avoids the tourist trail, instead seeking out real villages and working communities – establishing a genuine relationship with the people she paints. Her idea is just to blend into the background. Her subjects have to forget that she is there, so that she can observe and draw them just getting on with their daily lives.

Somehow, in Katherine’s hands, the mundane and the commonplace, the daily trip to the local well for water, or a meeting with friends in the market, is transformed into a vibrant, colourful window into another world. She works this same magic observing the performers at the Yarmouth Hippodrome.

Her innate understanding of space and movement comes from her background as a dancer. In her teenage years she was torn between following a life in dance or one in art. After a spell at the London School of Contemporary Dance, she disappeared off to study in the Sussex studio and French summer school of painter Peter Norton, before heading off to Florence with Signorina Simi, and ending up at London’s Byam Shaw School of Art.

Then, after all that she went back at the contemporary dance school, studying ballet, modern dance, choreography and music notation – before dancing in New York, running her own company in Amsterdam and training a troupe of street children in Addis Ababa.

Marriage saw a reintroduction to the world of art with her moving from charcoal to oils, and her mobile life took her to central Italy, to the French Pyrenees and for a time to the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. Divorce and two young children brought her to Suffolk and her long love affair with the coastal – yet she retained a love for world travel, a desire to see how other people lived, how other cultures celebrated their lives and their customs.

She said that the big departure in this new series of paintings is the first time she has painted an illusion. All her previous artwork has been focused on daily life – real life. The circus is the presentation of an illusion. “They create another world and you as an audience are sucked into that world. It’s a glorious experience, a wonderful world but it’s not real. It only gives the appearance of being real and I found that fascinating to portray.”

She said that for someone who had previously only worked with natural light, the fact that the whole performance was choreographed by spotlights and coloured lamps was a strange experience and gave her work as an artist an added challenge.

Katherine’s paintings form part of a bigger exhibition called Showtime: Great Yarmouth’s Circus Story which runs at the Time and Tide Museum in Blackfriars Road until October 31. She said the initial exhibition would be re-hung and refreshed in the summer as she had too many pictures to fit in the exhibition space.

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