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The famed French funambulist, Charles Blondin

by Aimee Board, 11 February 2019

Charles Blondin, 1874 by Timothy Noble
Charles Blondin, 1874 by Timothy Noble

The famed nineteenth century French tightrope walker and aerial acrobat, Charles Blondin, born Jean Francoix Gravelet (1824–1897), was known for thrilling audiences world-wide with his acrobatic feats. The ‘crazy, bearded little Frenchman’ is said to have crossed Niagara Gorge on over 300 occasions, at first performing simple crossings then amazing onlookers with increasingly bizarre and challenging stunts. Renowned for being the cleverest and most venturesome of his profession, Blondin’s feats were said to be too skilful and required courage beyond the limits of his imitators. His first crossing of Niagara Falls in 1859 startled the thousands of onlookers who witnessed the event, so much so that his stunt was spoken about for generations to come. Such was his confidence that he even offered to carry Albert, Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) across Niagara Falls while the Prince was on an official visit to Canada. His Royal Highness, needless to say, declined the invitation.

Blondin’s greatest exploit of all was when he carried his manager, Harry Colcord, on his back across the Falls, Colcord later commenting how overwhelmed he was while suspended 1200 feet in mid-air over the raging torrent below. Before Colcord’s ordeal was over, Blondin was quoted as saying to his manager, ‘Harry, you are no longer Colcord: you are Blondin. Until I clear this place be a part of me, mind, body and soul. If I sway, sway with me. Do not attempt to do any balancing yourself. If you do we shall both go down to our death.’

Charles Blondin carries his manager Harry Colcord over the gorge of the Niagara River in 1859

Encouraged by Australian entrepreneur and agent Harry (HP) Lyons, ‘The Great Blondin’ followed his North American tour with a visit to Australia, performing for enthralled onlookers in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. On 25 July 1874, he made his first appearance in Australia, thrilling over 3,500 onlookers when he crossed the Brisbane Botanic Gardens on a tightrope measuring 76 metres in length and suspended 24 metres above the ground. He first danced across the tightrope in knight’s armour before performing several acrobatic stunts including balancing on his head for ten seconds, cooking an omelette on a stove while drinking a glass of champagne, balancing on two legs of a wooden chair, and carrying his assistant, Mr Niaud, pick-a’-back from one end to the other.

Blondin’s performance captivated the audience for one hour and 45 minutes, during which time he would consistently toy with the crowd, pretending to stumble and fall to heighten the drama. The Maryborough Chronicle reported that Blondin’s appearance ‘produced the curious effect known as bringing the heart into the mouth.’ Blondin’s popularity in Australia was such that to ‘blond’ on the back of the fence was the ambition of every kiddie. He inspired at least five Australians to emulate his feats, the most famed being the funambulist and aeronautical balloonist, Henri L’Estrange, commonly known as ‘the Australian Blondin.’

L’Estrange’s claim to fame was walking a tight rope over a quarter of a mile in length across Sydney’s Middle Harbour in 1877. He was presented with a large gold medallion in the shape of a star to commemorate the event. Though Blondin’s crossing over a roaring Niagara Falls seemed far more impressive than the traverse of a tranquil harbour, L’Estrange succeeded in entertaining the Australian public with programmes almost identical to Blondin’s and, as was reported in The Argus in 1941, ‘with just as much nerve as his predecessor’.

The Australian Blondin, 1876 by George Willets

Photographer Timothy Noble worked from a number of addresses in Melbourne between 1871 and 1884 before relocating to Sydney. At the time of Charles Blondin’s visit to Melbourne in 1874, Noble’s studio was at 135 Bourke Street, not far from George Selth Coppin’s Theatre Royal. It was there that Blondin made his inaugural Victorian appearance, The Age advising readers on 20 October 1874 that ‘Chevalier Blondin, The Hero of Niagara’ would be visiting the Theatre the following evening, and advising that ‘Early application should be made for seats and tickets.’ In early November the paper reported that ‘We have received from Mr. Noble, photographer, of Bourke-street, a very good likeness of M. Blondin, with all his honors. The medals shown in the photograph have quite a history attached to them. Among them is the order of her Catholic Majesty the Queen of Spain.’ Blondin’s pose likewise suggests his courageous spirit, while the pair of binoculars at his side is perhaps an allusion to the means by which some witnessed his thrilling and spectacular performances. The State Library of Victoria has 30 of Noble’s photographs, including portraits of actresses Hattie Shepparde and Maggie Moore, and impresario J.C. Williamson.