Milwaukee gallery restores large circus poster

MILWAUKEE – The staff of Wisconsin’s oldest art restoration gallery didn’t clown around piecing together brittle sections of an elephantine, 60-year-old circus poster discovered in a long-forgotten estate.

A bad pun aside, Landmarks Gallery was forced to close off the entire second floor to gently reassemble the 7-foot by 17-foot poster from 10 individual sections. Rob Bundy, editor of the Milwaukee Home and Fine Living magazine, purchased the poster years ago at a Milwaukee-area estate sale.

“When he brought them in the paper wasn’t in very good shape,” Huetta Manion, director and vice president of Landmarks Gallery, told Antique Trader. “The second floor of the gallery was inoperative for the two weeks it took to put it back together.

Monica Mull, chief restorer for Landmarks Gallery, oversaw the project from start to finish.

 “We placed it on a fine canvas background and put grommets on the top so that it could be tied to a pole,” Manion said. Manion’s daughter, Mary Manion, authors a monthly column for Antique Trader called “Art Markets.” Manion’s next column will be featured in the Aug. 19 edition.

Manion and Bundy suspect the colorful, but generic, circus poster was printed for use in more than one location. The original was designed so that customized strips could be attached to the bottom of the poster as the traveling caravans moved city to city in the late 1800s and early 1900s. One original strip advertising a Shrine Circus was found with the pieces. It was left off the restoration, however Landmarks staff inserted specially placed grommets in the canvas so that the poster could live again as a working advertisement.

The poster was recently used as a backdrop at a function for an area Ronald McDonald House just before Milwaukee hosted the return of the Great Circus Parade July 12.

The parade was produced by the Circus World Museum of Baraboo after a six-year hiatus. The museum has two-thirds of the surviving antique circus wagons in the world.

The wagons are one of the “greatest examples of American rolling folk art,” said Bill Fox, whose uncle, the late Chappie Fox, was one of the parade’s founders.

The $1.5 million event included 52 mostly antique circus wagons, 300 horses, six elephants, 150 clowns, more than 450 riding and walking performers dressed in circus attire, and 10 marching bands. 

The vibrant poster Manion’s staff restored would have looked right at home in the parade. It is decorated with a smiling clown, a performing seal, dancing girls and an elephant behind a trapeze artist.

“It was a $2,500 investment,” Manion said of the restoration effort. “We are the only ones in the state who do this type of work – but we certainly have never tackled something this big before!”

Landmarks Gallery may be reached at 800-352-8892 or at