# 44062

RIISFELDT, Emil

Studio portrait of Henri L’Estrange, the famed funambulist known as “The Australian Blondin”. Sydney, circa 1876.

$440.00 AUD

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Albumen print photograph, carte de visite format, 103 x 63 mm (mount); verso with the imprint of ‘E. Riisfeldt, London Photo Gallery (next door to Rush & Rousseau), 616 George Street, Sydney’; the print has a touch of foxing, but is otherwise in very good condition, as is the mount.

A rare studio portrait of Melbourne-born Henri L’Estrange (1842-1894), the celebrated funambulist who in 1877 performed the sensational feat of crossing Sydney’s Middle Harbour on a tightrope no fewer than three times. The portrait was probably taken soon after his arrival in Sydney late in 1876.

Provenance: from a group of theatre-related photographs originally collected by the Sydney actor, stage manager and playwright Alfred Dampier.

From The Dictionary of Sydney:

‘L’Estrange began using the moniker ‘the Australian Blondin’ from early 1876. Arriving in Sydney from Melbourne, L’Estrange erected a large canvas enclosure in the Domain and began a regular series of performances on the tightrope. His opening night on 26 January 1877 attracted a reported crowd of between two and three thousand people. Newspaper reports commented that his performance was so like that of the original Blondin that people could be forgiven for thinking they had seen the world-renowned rope-walker. With his rope suspended 40 feet (12 metres) above the ground, L’Estrange walked backwards and forwards, walked in armour, walked covered in a sack, used and sat on a chair, cooked and rode a bicycle, all on the rope. His show also included a fireworks display for the public’s entertainment.

L’Estrange performed in the Domain from January through to April 1877, but not without incident. On 7 February 1877, as L’Estrange neared the end of his wire act, sparks from the fireworks going off around him fell into the nearby store of gunpowder and fireworks, igniting them. The store’s shed was demolished, a surrounding fence knocked down, part of L’Estrange’s performance tent caught fire, and two young boys were injured.

L’Estrange’s Domain show was in preparation for his main Sydney performance: crossing Sydney Harbour. In late March 1877, advertisements began to appear in the Sydney newspapers for L’Estrange’s proposed harbour crossing. The first public performance was set for Saturday 31 March, with L’Estrange having organised 21 steamers to convey spectators from Circular Quay to a special landing stage close to his performance area. L’Estrange advised those wishing to see his performance to travel on his steamers as they were the only ones with permission to land passengers. Of course this did not stop other entrepreneurs and captains from carrying spectators to and fro. Prior to the public performance, L’Estrange undertook the crossing for a select audience of ‘gentlemen’ and members of the press. That crossing was a success, and was well reviewed in the papers, no doubt adding to the crowd’s anticipation for the Saturday show. Sadly, bad weather postponed the performance, which did not go ahead until 14 April.

At 1 o’clock on Saturday April 14, the steamers began leaving Circular Quay, conveying 8,000 of an estimated 10,000-strong crowd to Middle Harbour. The remainder were reported to be walking from St Leonards, with a toll being collected by collectors along the way. Spectators clambered up the sides of the bay for vantage points, while hundreds more stayed on board steamers, yachts and in row boats below. The rope was strung across the entrance to Willoughby Bay, from Folly Point to the head of the bay, a reported length of 1420 feet or 433 metres, 340 feet (104 metres) above the waters below. The distance meant that two ropes were required, spliced together in the centre, to reach the other side, with 16 stays fixed to the shore and into the harbour to steady the structure. At precisely 4 pm L’Estrange appeared from his tent on the eastern shore. Dressed in a dark tunic, red cape and turban, he stepped onto the rope and began his walk. Amid the cheers of the onlookers, L’Estrange walked confidently to the centre where the rope was joined, slowed and moved past the spliced portion. Beyond the halfway mark, L’Estrange stopped, stood on his right foot then lowered himself to his knee, before sitting and waving a handkerchief to the crowd. He next lay down on his back, before returning to sitting and examining the crowd below through a small telescope he produced from his pocket. Satisfied with the view, the numbers, and probably the takings, L’Estrange returned to his feet and walked the remainder of the rope to terra firma.

The successful crossing was greeted with enthusiastic cheers, the tunes of the Young Australian Band, the Albion Brass Band and Cooper and Bailey’s International Show Band, who had all come to entertain the crowds, and the shrilling of the steamers’ whistles. The Young Australian Band played ‘The Blondin March’, a piece composed specially by Mr J Devlin. L’Estrange soon reappeared in a small row boat to greet the crowds, although many had already rushed the steamers to leave, resulting in a few being jostled into the harbour.

While the Illustrated Sydney News proclaimed it a truly wonderful feat, performed with the greatest coolness and consummate ability, not all of Sydney’s press were so enthusiastic. The Sydney Mail questioned the worth of such a performance beyond the profits made, commenting that it was a mystery to many minds why such large concourses of people should gather together to witness a spectacle which has so little intrinsic merit. There is nothing about it to charm the taste or delight the fancy.

Despite the criticism, L’Estrange performed at least once more at Middle Harbour, although crowds were down to a few hundred, requiring only four steamers to transport them. The same night he was guest of honour at a testimonial dinner held at the Victoria Theatre, where he was presented with a large gold star, inscribed with scenes of his latest triumph and the date of his public performance. Measuring three inches (7.6 centimetres) across, it was centred with a 1½ carat diamond. An illuminated address and a bag of sovereigns, collected from his admirers, were also handed over. L’Estrange thereafter took his show on the road, going first to Brisbane in May 1877, and afterwards (reportedly) to Singapore, England and America.’