Celebrated Victorian showman archive in sale

An archive of items that belonged to the Victorian showman, mountaineers and journalist Albert Smith (1818-1860), a prominent figure in the era who has fallen out of public attention over the last 150 years, will sell in Somerset.

During the 1850s, Smith’s show ‘Mont Blanc’ was a hugely popular event at the fashionable Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, drawing in crowds and giving rise to ‘Mont Blanc Mania’, a fashion for all things alpine and mountaineering-related.

Showman, mountaineers and journalist Albert Smith
Showman, mountaineers and journalist Albert Smith

Lawrences Auctioneers of Crewkerne will sell an extensive and previously unrecorded archive of items relating to Smith, including original manuscripts, books, letters, items produced to accompany his shows and all nature of items which will be sold in fifty lots on March 16. The auction house believes the collection will sell for many thousands of pounds and is likely to be of interest to buyers in this country and the United States.

Albert Smith was Born in Chertsey, Surrey, where his father was the local doctor. He studied medicine in London and Paris, but soon spent more time on his literary career, and was an early contributor to Punch. In the 1840s he published a number of novels and plays. In 1849 he went on a tour to Constantinople and the Near East, and on his return published A Month at Constantinople, which was an entertaining account of his travels. In August 1851 he made his famous ascent of Mont Blanc and in 1852 published The Story of Mont Blanc, puting on an accompanying show, managed by his brother Arthur, at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. The show ran for 2,000 performances over the following six years, and led to a surge of interest in mountaineering. He appeared before Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Osborne House in May 1854. He was also a founder member of the Alpine Club in 1857.

Following his trip to China in 1858 he published To China and Back and gave another popular entertainment at the Egyptian Hall entitled ‘Mont Blanc to China’. The year before his death he married Lucy Keeley, daughter of actors Robert and Mary Anne Keeley. He died of bronchitis at his home North End Lodge, Waltham Green and is buried in Brompton Cemetery.

Much admired in literary and artistic circles, Albert Smith was well known to the ‘Punch Crowd’, friends with Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins and other regulars at the Garrick Club where he was part of the younger ‘Bohemiam’ crowd. Numerous examples of his literary work are included in the archive, including his short lived comic journal The Man in the Moon, which ran to 30 editions and was intended to be a rival for Punch. Short works of comic fiction such as the natural history of series of books which included volumes about ‘Stuck up people’, ‘The Idler upon town’ and ‘the Ballet girl’, all of which are now rare.

It is the Mont Blanc items that are sure to raise the greatest interest as this represents one of the most popular theatrical successes of the period. The magnificent punch bowl presented to Albert by his brother Arthur after the 500th performance is an unrepeatable treasure, as is the jug presented after the 200th show. The scrolling diorama is as close as we can now get to attending the show, or perhaps given that the volume of lecture notes is included, perhaps a revival is in order.

Consigned for auction directly from the family of Albert Smith’s sister Laura Eady, this collection brings together the finest collection of work relating to Albert Smith seen in public for many years.

The auction will take place on March 16th.