Skip to main content

Van Amburgh, Isaac, 1808 - 1865



  • Existence: 26 May 1808 - 29 November 1865


Isaac A. Van Amburgh was an American animal trainer, most famous for developing the first trained wild animal act and marking the cross over from menagerie shows to performing animals in circuses.

Isaac was born on 26 May 1808 in Peekskill, New York, of Native American descend, his grandfather adopted the name Van Amburgh. From a young age Isaac display an interest in animals and insects and was often called upon by neighbours and friends to investigate incidents and take care of wild animals, which meant submitting them to his will.

In 1827, Isaac started his professional career working with wild animals cleaning cages in the Zoological Institute of New York, which in spite of the grand name was in fact a small travelling menagerie. He soon displayed an attitude for working with animals and bending them to his will. This was noticed by the menagerie owners, who promoted the cleaning boy to animal trainer and developed a whole new show exhibiting him inside the cages with the animals dressed as a gladiator. During the shows, Isaac displayed a series of daredevil acts including putting his head inside of the lions and tigers’ mouths and performing all sorts of dominance acts over them, which very soon gained him fame and the nickname of The Lion King.

In spite of his success, his cruel treatment of animals also gained him criticism, although at that time this wasn’t enough to damage his popularity, justifying his practices on the supremacy of humans over animals and by 1831 he had acquired his own menagerie, which he travelled around America and Europe.

Isaac visited England between the late 1830s and the 1840s. He made his debut at Astley’s Amphitheatre in 1838 and performed for Queen Victoria in several occasion including six shows at Drury Lane between 1839 and 1844. Queen Victoria was so impressed by Van Amburgh that she commissioned Edwin Landseer to immortalise him on a painting, which was later displayed at the Royal Academy.

Royal approval gained Isaac a new fame status both in America and Europe and his name continued to be used by circuses until 1922, over five decades after his death.

Van Amburgh died of a heart attack on 29 November 1865 still at the height of his fame and having amassed a personal fortune.

Found in 7 Collections and/or Records:

Catalogue for the Sale of Van Amburgh's Whole Establishment, 18 March 1845

Reference code: 178J9.1
Scope and Contents

The Roman Amphitheatre, Cooper Street, Manchester. Blue type on white background containing the conditions of sale and listing of items to be auctioned including horses, wild animals and implements, also contains pencil annotations. Printed by S. A. Hurton, Printer, Queen Square, Liverpool, 4p.p.

Dates: 18 March 1845

Catalogues, 1844 - 1980

Reference code: 178J9
Scope and Contents

Catalogues of sale of circus property including Van Amburgh and Bertram Mills.

Dates: 1844 - 1980

Circus Friends Association Collection

Reference code: NFA0122
Scope and Contents

This collection consists of a large library of books and journals, as well as archival material including posters, programmes, photographs, films, handbills, research material, scrapbooks, original artwork and many other items of ephemera relating to British, Irish and European circuses

Dates: 1795 - 2020

Drury Lane Attraction Poster, 1838

Reference code: 178R47.2
Scope and Contents

Madame Albertazzi, Mdlle. H. Elsler, Mr. Ducrow, Double stud of horses, Mr. Van Amburgh animal trainer, Grieve's New Scenery, Charlemagne or the Fete of the Forest. Black type on off white backgound. Printed by W. Wright Printer, Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.

Dates: 1838

Posters, c1800 - 2011

Reference code: 178R47
Scope and Contents

A wide range of British and international circus and menagerie posters ranging from the 19th to the 21st century including Astley's Amphitheatre, Pablo Fanque, Polito, Bostock and Wombwell, Ducrow, Cooke, Hengler, Sanger, Smart, Gerry Cottle, Bertram Mills, Chipperfield's, Robert Brothers, Fossett, Blackpool Tower, Billy Russell, Belle Vue, Great Yarmouth Hippodrome, Austen Brothers and many more.

Dates: c1800 - 2011

Theatre Royal Poster, 5 June 1848

Reference code: 178R47.14
Scope and Contents

Williamson Square, Van Amburgh animal trainer, Morok the Beast Tamer, The Irish Tutor. Black type on white background, listing of acts and dramatic incidents. Printed by W. Ellis, Printer, 21 Castle Street, Liverpool.

Dates: 5 June 1848

Victorian, Edwardian and Georgian Circus Posters, c1800 - 1930

Reference code: 178R47.1-51
Scope and Contents

Early circus and menagerie posters including Polito's menagerie, Astley's Amphitheatre and Pablo Fanque's, Sanger's, Powell's, Ducrow's, Cooke's and Hengler's circuses among others.

Dates: c1800 - 1930

Additional filters:

Archival Object 6
Collection 1
Acrobats 3
Aerialists 3
Animals 5
Art 1
Boxing 1