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Ringling Museum unveils rare circus banners by Belgian artist

A newly restored blast from circus pasts will be on display at the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota starting Friday, Nov. 7, through March 2015 as a series of four, rare, early 20th-century, large-scale circus banners by Belgian artist Frans de Vos will be literally unrolled before the public. 

The 9 x 9.5-foot century-old banners were stumbled upon by Circus Historian Howard Tibbals, while paging through a London auction house catalog in 1989.  Listed almost as footnote, with a tiny photograph, were “de Vos banners, good condition.” Tibbals, a collector and model-maker, was intrigued and purchased them, but when they finally arrived, “good condition” was inaccurate: the banners were torn, re-stitched together, crumbling, fragile. The damage was severe, the life of the circus and the century had taken its toll.

Though information about the artist Frans de Vos (1919-1938) is scant, Ringling Museum researchers know he came from a circus family and was a scene designer. There are hints that these banners served as advertisements and backdrops for his family’s own circus. 

“They must have been treasured objects – they kept all four, they kept them together,” says Ringling Circus Curator Debbie Walk. “Truly remarkable, you don’t often find one, and here we have four!” Walk says the banners are also noteworthy in that they show performers performing, not sideshow banners which typically portrayed the unusual or weird.  

Tibbals, primary donor and creator of the Ringling Circus Museum’s Tibbals Learning Center, selected Barbara Ramsay of ARTEX Conservation Laboratory in Washington D.C. to restore the banners, a seven-year process now complete and ready for viewing.  Ramsay is now part of the Ringling team as Chief Conservator. 

“The whole story of conservation and restoration is a wonderful and remarkable story of survival,” says Walk. She admires Tibbals tenacity in all things circus and says he ”spends a great deal of time searching out the circus world, and goes the next step. He wants people to see it not just today, but a generation from now, two generations from now.”

The de Vos banners will be exhibited in the Ringling Museum of Art through the end of March, 2015. The exhibit includes a looped visual presentation highlighting the comprehensive seven-year collaborative restoration experience.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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