One of the first drawings I ever exhibited was titled Siamese Twins Jogging. It was, according to the gallery at the time, ‘modest in scale, and modestly priced.’ It sold for the princely sum of £25 and looked much like this (see photo on left).
It was one of six drawings I had in the show, all of which would later become the inspiration for my first book, There’s a Building on Sixth Avenue. A collection of humorous drawings and verse, though alas, the Siamese Twins did not make the final cut. Proving too sensitive a subject for younger readers and older editors.
Fast forward to more recent times.
I was playing around with an idea for a drawing, repeating the image of a bird, over and over. Then one bird became two. Goldfinches to be specific.
We have feeders and coconuts outside the window that I sit at to work. On any given day I can see Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Robin, Woodpecker (Woody), Blackbird, Goldfinch (constantly squabbling), Pigeon ( Common and Wood), Starling, Collared Dove, Thrush and all manner of Tits. A constant ebb and flow feasting on sunflower hearts and mealworm. Yum.
Occasionally, we even get Parrots. Apparently they escaped from their cages years ago, settled in the park just a stone’s throw away, and bred. Now there’s a whole company of them, living quite happily with the wind and the rain and cold.
Oh, and come spring we get the ducks visiting. They stay about 6 to 8 weeks while the female decides which of her many suitors she prefers. At least she can rely on a good meal until she makes up her mind. We’ve been feeding them for years, and not the popping candy as I once suggested. That was a joke. Just for a second though, I’d love to see their faces.
Where was I?
After some time playing around with the bird drawings, I had the thought to recycle the Siamese Twins idea. And so, the Finch Brothers were born, or hatched to be more precise. Soon after they would become the Fabulous Finch Brothers. They too were joined at the head, but would not be joggers, a term I always took to be an invention of the 1970s and the keep fit fad, but Richard Jefferies, a 19th century English naturalist, wrote of ‘joggers,’ describing them as quickly moving people who brushed others aside as they passed. Sounds about right.
The Finch Brothers, I decided, would amaze audiences with their magic and trickery.
I’ve always been fascinated by the world of Circuses and Sideshows, in particular the antique posters, handbills and pamphlets, produced to advertise such attractions as Albinos, Bearded Girl 7 Years Old, the Two-Headed Lady, the Skeleton Woman and Balloon-Headed Baby. Images that today are about as politically incorrect as one might imagine, but more often than not, wonderful examples of early graphic art.
Now they read more like a list of Charles Burns’s graphic novels.
Such Sideshows, or Freak Shows, as they were more often called, were a popular pastime as far back as the mid 16th century. One example was the exhibition at the court of Charles I, in England, of Lazarus and Joannes Baptista Colloredo, conjoined twins from Genoa, Italy. By accounts, Lazarus was handsome and functioning, while his brother dangled before him from his chest. Lazarus, when not exhibiting himself, would cover his brother with a cloak to avoid attention.
In the 18th century, Matthias Buchinger, born without arms or legs and only 29 inches tall, astonished crowds with his many talents. Known as “The Little Man of Nuremberg,” Buchinger was an expert musician, artist, calligrapher, inventor, and magician.
Chang and Eng, the original Siamese Twins, born in 1811 in Siam, now Thailand, were no doubt the most famous attraction of their day. They were joined at the torso. Encouraged to exercise by their mother, they would run and swim. Today they could easily be separated, but in the 1800s it was a risky operation. Though as one surgeon of the time remarked, they were worth more together than apart. Chang and Eng were astute businessmen, and with 21 children between them to support, they needed to be.
After three years with Abel Coffin as their manager, they took over their own careers as a touring curiosity. Admission to view them was 50 cents, or one shilling in England. Posters clearly stated: ‘No readmission to the room on one ticket.’ Books could be purchased, some featuring a full length portrait.
P.T. Barnum, that genius of self-promotion, displayed a wax figure of the twins in his American Museum in the 1840s, published a pamphlet of their lives in 1853, and hired them for a 6-week engagement in 1860. They even embarked on a European tour, sponsored by Barnum, in 1868. Barnum purchased Scudder’s American Museum in 1841, re-opening as Barnum’s American Museum on Jan. 1, 1842, a museum that was part zoo, lecture hall, theatre, and freak shows. It also displayed a hat worn by Ulysses S. Grant for good measure. Admission was 25 cents and attracted as many as 15,000 visitors a day. When Barnum noticed people were lingering too long at the exhibits, he posted signs indicating, This way to the Egress. Not realising it was another word for Exit, they quickly found their way outside.
Like Chang and Eng, the Finches were worth more together than apart, to me at least.
After further reading about P.T. Barnum and his ventures, which included meeting Queen Victoria and visiting Lincoln at the White House, I thought it prudent to introduce him to the Finch Brothers. I gave them names, Felix and Cornelius, and changed them from Goldfinch to Greenfinch, for no other reason than the single use of colour seemed more aesthetically pleasing. Posters were printed, or rather drawn. As too, was P.T. Barnum, standing before a packed house.
Gently, he removes his top hat to reveal the Conjoined Twins, Felix and Cornelius Finch perched atop his balding head. He puts his finger to his lips as a sign of ‘quiet.’ To his left another sign reads, ‘Please Applaud With Hands Only.’
INTERMISSION (Already!? Hucksters!).
I actually saw a picture of just such a sign when researching old theatre photographs. It reminded me of being a kid at Saturday cinema club. Every week without fail, as soon as the cavalry charged to the rescue, 300 of us would kick and clap so loud, the building shook. As did the theatre manager’s nerves. He would immediately stop the picture until everyone was quiet and he, and the building, had stopped shaking.
I’m sure some weeks we registered on the Richter scale. A nine at least.
END of INTERMISSION.
Barnum positions the brothers on the red velvet-covered table before him, then proceeds to blindfold them. As he steps away they begin their act. Starting with the Blindfolded Juggling.
One. Two. Then three. Two more, five! Seven! The audience can barely watch. Not nine surely? No, not nine…10! Keeping them in the air with consummate ease, until at the given moment, the knives fall with a thud. Landing point down into the table, forming a perfect circle around Felix and Cornelius.
The audience react with respectful applause.
Next, the Ball of Ribbon (Good for the digestion).
Followed by the Water Tank (Do not try this at home).
And, for one night only, the Pit of Cats (Not for those with a fear of heights, or cats).
The finale, and most dangerous of all, the Sawing in Half (Definitely not for the squeamish).
The curtain falls. The show is over.
Though, as with any work in progress, there is more to come. There is even, in true Hollywood style, a love interest and a good twist at the end, though obviously I cannot say what because that would spoil the surprise.
And that is where this was to end, with me telling you, that I cannot tell you the ending.
That is, until a recent serendipitous encounter.
An hour’s drive from where I live now, there sits a typical English seaside town, Southport, which is neither in the south or a port. My father was born there. A Sandgrounder. The town boasts a fine Victorian art gallery and museum, The Atkinson, and it was here, while strolling through the newly refurbished galleries, that I chanced upon a small, dimly lit display case. Inside was an old, rather faded, top hat.
I glanced at the caption. Top Hat belonging to P.T. Barnum.
I was like a kid at christmas. My wife came over to see what the fuss was about, and together we read on. It seems P.T.Barnum was an advisor to the Botanic Gardens Mueum, which opened in Southport in 1876. He liked the museum so much, he donated his hat to it. Following the death of his first wife, Barnum had married Nancy Fish two years previously. She was born in 1850 in Southport. Another Sandgrounder.
And now here we were, in true Barnum’s American Museum style, staring at his top hat. The very same hat that was removed to reveal the Fabulous Finch Brothers, Felix and Cornelius.
My wife walked on while I stood a while longer, nose to the glass, trying desperately to see beneath the top hat. I tried every which way, without success. I was still trying when the gallery assistant politely asked if I would care to see the Egress.
“It’s this way,” she said.