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Charles Blondin
, 1874

by Timothy Noble

carte de visite photograph (support: 10.2 cm x 6.2 cm, image: 9.3 cm x 5.6 cm)

More images of this artwork

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. Encouraged by Australian entrepreneur and agent Harry (HP) Lyons, ‘The Great Blondin’ followed his North American tour with a visit to Australia in 1874, performing for enthralled onlookers in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. On 25 July 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.’

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.

Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra
Purchased 2018
Accession number: 2018.83