Inspiration from big top magic

Andrew ClarkeArtist and world traveller Katherine Hamilton found a new global community inside the circus ring. ANDREW CLARKE spoke to her about her two year project to capture the magic of Yarmouth's Hippodrome.Andrew Clarke

Artist and world traveller Katherine Hamilton found a new global community inside the circus ring. ANDREW CLARKE spoke to her about her two year project to capture the magic of Yarmouth's Hippodrome.

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Katherine Hamilton loves people. She loves the way they interact. She loves communities. She loves exotic locales. She has travelled the world capturing in vibrant colour how people live their lives.

However, during the past two years, the painter has found a new global community living just up the coast in Great Yarmouth. She has just completed an extensive project capturing the thrill of life at the Hippodrome in Great Yarmouth.

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Chinese acrobats perform alongside Portuguese trapeze artists, who are swinging past French jugglers and Spanish clowns. And mixed between these exotic incomers are locals.

'It's a whole exciting world sitting right on our doorstep,' Katherine says with bright-eyed enthusiasm. In her travel paintings Katherine loves markets. But in a circus the meeting place is the ring. It's the performance space where the colourful artistes perform their feats of derring-do, where they create their professional identity.

'I have always loved the circus since I was a small child. I love the sense of wonder that it conjures up. I have known that the Hippodrome was there for a long time. Someone I knew went to a performance and was raving about it, so I went along to see what I was missing and I was just entranced by what I saw.

'I went up initially to see one performance but I was so taken with it all, I sought out the owner of the circus and asked whether he would allow me to draw in there and he basically gave me an open ticket. So for two years I went to dozens of performances each season and got a lot of ideas. I filled up lots of sketchbooks and then started working on the paintings.'

Katherine quickly realised that the colour and the sense of community that informed her other work was very much present in microcosm at the Hippodrome. 'The circus is a very global place. I was in a dress rehearsal and there were people speaking Portuguese, French, Yarmouth, Russian - it was a real mix. Then I realised that this was not a disparate collection of individuals but a real family.

'They were a great tribe of people who were working and interacting together. They had their own national backgrounds and viewpoints but they also shared a common heritage in the circus and spoke the same circus language - that's what the show depends on and I got totally transported into that world.'

Katherine, who trained to be a dancer before attending a French summer school of painter Peter Norton, before heading off to London's Byam Shaw School of Art, said: 'I felt there was something inherently risky in the series, simply because there is something risky about the theatre and the circus about any live performance. There is a grittiness to it that belies the glamour of the performance and the pictures.'

She said that as with a community or culture she visits, the Hippodrome has a history which informs the present. The building has been home to countless performances dating back over one hundred years. There are stories of Charlie Chaplin performing there in the early years of the 20th century with Fred Karno's Circus and Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff was born at the theatre, literally into the stage trunk of his musical hall performer parents.

'Thankfully, the building has not been mucked around with, it's pretty much how it looked in the early 1900s and it was the atmosphere and space which completely fired me up when I first went in there. It's a magical place. They say it has a ghost, everything you would expect in an old building, a building which has lived, it has a past, and yet is still bursting with life.'

From the outset, she deliberately took the view that she would view the circus as a spectator. She didn't want to look at backstage life, she didn't want to get to know the details of the performers' lives, or study their background or training regimes. She wanted to depict that sense of wonder and spectacle.

'It was the space that first captured my attention, then of course you become transfixed by the acrobats and I love how they are able to project their personality through the act and across such a vast space. So I came to it very much as a spectator. That's the experience I wanted to capture.'

t Katherine's paintings form part of the exhibition Showtime: Great Yarmouth's Circus Story which runs at the Time and Tide Museum until October 31.