Paul Cinquevalli

Paul Cinquevalli, late 19th to early 20th century. Museum no. TM. 1966/A/153, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Paul Cinquevalli, late 19th to early 20th century. Museum no. TM 1966/A/153, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This is Paul Cinquevalli: he could balance a man on one arm above his head whilst juggling three balls with the other hand. He was born in Prussia, now part of Poland, and his real name was either Emile Otto Lehmann-Braun or Paul Kestner (sources are unclear).

His career in the circus had started at the age of 12 when he was spotted in a gymnastic display at his Berlin  school by a trapeze artist called Cinquevalli.

Cinquevalli suggested that Paul become a professional gymnast but Paul's father had already decided that his son would be a musician. Within a week Paul was on the way to Russia, having run away with the circus. In Russia, Cinquevalli appeared as 'The Little Flying Devil' but after a fall from a trapeze, he had to give up acrobatics and decided to become a juggler.

He first appeared in England in 1885 and was such a success that he settled in London. He appeared in circuses, music halls and pantomimes and was among the acts invited to appear in the music hall's first ever Royal Command Performance in 1912.

Paul Cinquevalli talking about his life in an interview published on December 27, 1893:

'When I was a boy at school I ran away to become an aerial gymnast. In the countries where we used to perform, nets under the trapezes were quite unknown, and serious falls were not uncommon. When I was nineteen I came down 75 feet and had the ill luck to strike a guy rope in my descent. Eight months afterwards when I came out of hospital, and they told me that with my left hand I should never again be able to swing on a bar, I took to juggling, which I had practised with some success in private before my accident. Since then I have been all over the continent and America. But now I am again making London my home, as you see.

Newspaper cutting of Paul Cinquevalli catching a washtub on his head, January 1897. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Newspaper cutting of Paul Cinquevalli catching a washtub on his head, Westminister Budget Newspaper, January 1897. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

'I practised catching an egg on a plate for nine years and then was absolutely perfect; but the public never thought much of it; and I don't do it now. They thought I had a stone egg and when I broke it to show that it was real they thought it was a bit of conjuring. But no real juggler would do such a thing. Everything I do, I do, there is no pretence. They ask me now whether the billiard balls which I balance one on the other on the cue are not flattened to make the feat easy. Of course they are not – not in the slightest.'

One of Cinquevalli’s tricks was to throw an iron ball and catch it on his neck.

'The iron ball is solid and weighs 48lb. But I am so used to it now that I hardly notice its weight. At the Nouveau Cirque, the other day, I found an iron ball of fully 100lb and I caught it on my neck like the other. I did not find so much difference as I expected. I have had a few nasty accidents with my shoulder bones if I am not in the right position but I take care not to let it fall on my skull. But to catch a lawn tennis ball on my forehead is just as difficult, though the audience don't know it.'

One of Cinquevalli's most dangerous tricks was catching a wooden family washtub, that weighed around 20kg, on his head.

Cinquevalli would set the tub spinning at the top of a long pole, then would whip the pole away and the tub would drop over seven metres to be caught on the spike on the top of the helmet. If he misjudged the centre by a couple of centimetres, the impact would throw him across the ring.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, anti-German feeling ran high. Cinquevalli was actually Polish by birth but because his real name sounded German, he was eventually ostracised and did not appear in England after 1912. He retired from the stage and died in Brixton, South London, in 1918.

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