The Scroll Must Go On

Idyllic New England landscapes, lighthouses, and… elephants?

We may never know who painted the Newberry’s recent and very mysterious gift from a onetime New Bedford whaling family. The colorful 14-foot scroll is full of charming details, in watercolor, including a circus parade. After some careful looking, we at least have a pretty good idea of when it was made!

Last summer, when Newberry Book Fair impresario Dan Crawford brought the scroll to the attention of the Curator of Modern Manuscripts, Martha Briggs, she immediately pegged it as being by a mid-19th-century American amateur. But what decade? Could the buildings give us a clue? The lighthouses and the architectural folly near the beginning seemed specific enough to help. But it was a different edifice that, when matched to a separate woodcut, we were able to identify.

This distinctive building turned out to be the Harvard College Observatory, founded in 1839. Now we knew the scroll could not possibly date any earlier than that.

Yet the real tip-offs were the scant patches of writing in the unsigned and undated scroll. Four of the five circus carriages in the landscape leading up to the Harvard observatory bore the name "Barnum." P.T. Barnum, of course, would be known for "The Greatest Show on Earth," i.e. the Barnum and Bailey Circus. But the museum director and showman extraordinaire did not join forces with Bailey before 1881, a date that seemed late for this scroll.

One final marking gave the necessary clue to date the scroll before 1871. It was the name inscribed on the saddle of the larger elephant: "TIP SAIB," who was usually known as "Tippo Sahib." This Indian elephant weighed about 9,000 pounds and had the first set of tusks seen in America. Likely brought to the United States around 1824, he enjoyed a long life in show business as a "performing" or "trick" elephant until his much-lamented demise in 1871. He is said to have saved the life of one trainer, attacked or killed a different trainer, and interrupted a surprised a group of loggers in the Delaware River.

But Tippo does not appear alone on the scroll. The smaller elephant attached by reins to his harness is very likely "Jenny Lind, the Tom Thumb" elephant headlining Isaac Van Amburgh's Golden Menagerie, along with Tippo, in 1868 and 1869. Her name is a nod to Barnum, who was also a business partner with Van Amburgh.

Beginning in the 1850s, Barnum oversaw a major U.S. tour of the "Swedish Nightingale" opera singer Jenny Lind, as well as touring the original dwarf Tom Thumb. As a result, he made all of them rich and household names. As Barnum foresaw, the rare sight of a baby elephant offered as much public interest as a virtuoso soprano, or a miniature Napoleon.

The Barnum and Van Amburgh partnership had turned disastrous however, as many animals were housed in Barnum's Museum in New York City during the fire of March 3, 1868. The March 28 Great Golden Menagerie tour that kicked off only a few weeks later was billed as a glamorous attempt at reinvention, with Van Amburgh's Mammouth Menagerie now featuring golden chariots and a salamander bear named "Fire Imp" who survived the fire.

Tippo Sahib and Jenny Lind appear to have overlapped for two seasons of the mammoth menagerie. The first mention of the two together in the press was March 28, 1868; the last time they were mentioned together was the following spring—perhaps by then, Jenny was no longer considered a baby and would not have been harnessed to Tippo.

Going by their joint public appearances, the painting seems likely to have been painted in March 1868 to July 1869, or very soon thereafter. But can we get even closer to an actual date? The New York Clipper mentions stops by the Golden Menagerie in New Haven, Hartford, and Providence in May 1868, and Lowell, Massachusetts on the 16th of July, 1868. Perhaps it was also that July when the artist saw the parade, with its golden chariots of musicians blaring and its elephants marching as it passed by Cambridge (only 30 miles to the south of Lowell). We cannot even be sure if the scroll represents a real event witnessed by a New England resident, but the amount of detail suggests some knowledge of the area. There is even a separate animal parade (with a single elephant) on the scroll that does not mention Barnum, so perhaps it was made by someone who desperately wanted to run away with the circus.

We are thrilled to share this amazing object and the new facts we've gleaned about it. However, as the pictures show, the painting will need a significant amount of conservation before it can be used in the reading room. Eventually, the entire scroll will be conserved and digitized, and finally ready for our readers to experience in person. But for now, other locations and details on the scroll will no doubt ring a bell for history and circus buffs, and so we urge you to help us identify them!

By Suzanne Karr Schmidt, George Amos Poole III Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts