Whatever became of Christian Lehmann, pioneering Petersburg Shrovetide zookeeper, Pierrot, illusionist, showman?

Newly uncovered evidence shows that, following the fire which destroyed his Russian theatrical business in 1836, he and his family pursued a career in London and Europe, before repeating their Petersburg triumphs in the USA and Australia. Also, a very curious copyright case.

Konstantin Makovsky's classic (sentimental?) 1869 painting of carnival at Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg.

Konstantin Makovsky's classic (sentimental?) 1869 painting of carnival at Admiralty Square in St. Petersburg. Image: Wikipedia.

In an excellent bio, Христиан Леман, published in the Petersburg Theatrical Journal in 2000, Anna Nekrylova, the historian of Russian popular spectacle (this lecture on Russian puppet theatre I think modifies the current Italianate view of Russian puppetry), says that Christian Lehman/Lehmann/Leman and his brother came to Russia from Europe in 1818 and worked first in Moscow, and that Christian moved to St. Petersburg in the early 1820s, acting and running a modest menagerie (including a boa constrictor, a lion, a jaguar, a hyena, a jackal, an ostrich, and a walrus), while his brother stayed on in the ancient capital. As a theatrical entrepreneur, Christian was synonymous with high-class, large-scale, mass-market, multi-media, commedia dell’arte buffoonery in Petersburg at Shrovetide and Easter in a period lasting from the mid-1820s until the terrible fire which in February 1836 destroyed his business and hundreds of his customers—according to Johann Georg Kohl, they laughed at a clown as he implored them to flee this “harlequin’s hell.” Nekrylova rightly credits Lehmann with major innovations in terms of content and presentation, and demonstrates his contemporary and subsequent social impact. However, as she says, “we know nothing about where and when Lehmann was born and died, what and with whom he studied, where he toured before coming to Russia, whether he had a family, etc.” Unable to afford theatre rents after the disaster, he left secretly, and his fate has hitherto been a mystery.

But we spectators demand more of this marvellous man, and we believe earnestly that he is none other than Herr Von Christian Lehmann, who, along with Herr Von Andrew Lehmann, Mademoiselle Adelaide Lehmann, and Mademoiselle Matilde Lehmann, and billed as the Lehmann Family, “the First Rope Dancers in the World,” “exhibit their wonderful performances upon La Corde Elastique” in 1839 at the Royal Grecian Saloon on the City Road in Shoreditch, London. Here’s another show of theirs. This seems credible, since Christian’s early gags in Petersburg including him rope-dancing mounted on a colossal rooster and an old woman, and rope-walking requires little financial investment and is portable.

Christian Lehmann, rope-walking in London in 1839. Image: East London Theatre Archive.

In 1840, Jules Martiny’s Histoire du théâtre de Liège (1887) finds the same family (Fichiers / p247) performing at the Theatre Royal at Liège, Belgium:

Après M. Eben, une troupe de Pantomimistes russes donna, du 12 au 27 mars, 6 représentations de pantomimes, danses, exercices acrobatiques, exécutés par la famillie LEHMAN.

By 1847, according to Thomas Allston Brown’s History of the American Stage (1870), they were in New York:

LEHMAN FAMILY, THE. Consisting of M’lles Adelaide, Mathilde, Julie, Flora and Caroline; Messrs Antoine, Christian, and Charles Winther. Made their American debut at the Park Theatre, New York in Aug., 1847. First appeared in Philadelphia Sept. 29, 1847 at the Arch Street Theatre.

They also travelled in America. There are various mentions from the 1860s in Ettore Rella‘s splendid 1940 History of Burlesque in San Francisco. Here is what sounds like Christian, purveying visual gags with the allegedly French Martinettis during a 45-night run in 1860-1:

In the pantomime (The Red Gnome),[1]Harvard appears to house copies of synopses (?) for Lehmann’s The Red Gnome and the White Warrior: A Fairy Pantomime, which was apparently translated from French, and of his Medina, Or, A Dream and Reality: A Grand Romantic Fairy Pantomime. Anyone? Mr. Lehman is very effective as the ‘Gnome.’ Much serio-comic use is made in this piece of a hidoous character representing a skeleton, which offends against good taste. The figure has a peculiar hitch, or palsied dropping of the side when it walks, which will be apt to haunt the memory of the nervous.

And here’s what Andrew Lehman apparently did in 1867 for the première of The Black Rook at the Metropolitan Theatre on Montgomery Street between Washington and Jackson:

The scenery is entirely new, and of the most splendid description. Andrew Lehman, the artist, has never painted better, and he has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best scenic artists in the world. The stage decorations and paraphernalia are gorgeous and abundant. In the ballet scene in the first act, immense wreaths of roses are introduced with splendid effect in the groupings. In the incantation scene in the second act, a lofty waterfall, with real water is introduced; while at the close of the scene, after Hartstein, the Magician (Mr. Howson) has ratified his compact with Astaroff, the arch-fiend, there is a sudden rush of demons, hideous reptiles, black rooks, phantom steeds with their riders, and other things ghastly and horrible, that make up a scene of awful weirdness and horror.[2]Musical comedy The Black Rook was the subject of a remarkable Californian copyright suit in 1867. Circuit Judge Deady ruled that it plagiarised the smuttily innovative and nonsensical Faust rip-off, The Black Crook, but that copyright protection was denied, since the Constitution grants the power to pass copyright and patent laws “to promote the progress of science and useful arts,” and the Black Crook “merely panders to the prurient curiosity by very questionable exhibitions of the female person.” In response to protests, Deady said “that the case had been decided and could not be re-opened; that there was sufficient in the testimony in his judgment to warrant the belief that the play depended for its attractions upon exhibitions of women in a state of partial undress, or, as one of the witnesses described it, of ‘women lying around loose.’” So the music available here and the libretto here will probably not help you decide whether it’s worth reviving, so try the Bowery Boys’ excellent podcast.

This attribution to Andrew is contradicted by TAB (“Andrew Lehman, who was for many years principal performer on the corde elastique, and leading pantomimist of the Gabriel Ravel Troupe, died at St. Jago de Cuba, Dec. 15, 1863, aged 30 years”), and Christian certainly did set design. Design and Art Australia Online has him & his civilising one of Britain’s remotest colonies:

scene-painter and actor, [and] a member of the celebrated Lehman ballet troupe which visited Australia in 1867, opening at Sydney’s Prince of Wales Opera House on 12 October and at Melbourne’s Royal Haymarket on 18 November. Christian Lehman assisted Messrs Pitt and Fry on the Melbourne scenery for the pantomime Harlequin Rumplestiltskin [aka Harlequin Rumpelstiltskin or, the Demon Dwarf of the Goblin Gold Mines]. The transformation scene, ‘the nymphs of the Silver Grotto, a scene of surpassing taste and beauty’, was specifically attributed to him. He and Mr Martin played the pantaloons in the Harlequinade, his younger brother, Auguste Lehman, and W.B. Gill playing the clowns in the same sequence

More details of the production here.

Thomas Allston Brown notes that at some stage “Adelaide was burnt to death at Niblo’s Garden, New York,” and tragedy struck again on the way home from Australia:

Mad. Anna Lehman, wife of Christian Lehman, died at sea in June, 1868, of consumption, going from Sydney to San Francisco, aged 32 [!] years. Christian Lehman died on Aug. 26, 1868, in San Francisco, Cal., of asthma aged 73 years.

Christian’s age at death computes with his arriving in Petersburg in 1818, even allowing for some theatrical give-and-take.

So there we are. I still wonder about the origins of this extraordinary man. Nekrylova suggests (do (try to) read it!) that he might have been active in théâtre de la foire-type entertainments around Paris as a lad (by then they had generally transferred to the boulevards), which sounds reasonable, but a quick search in the usual haystacks reveals no needles.

I would like to believe that the surviving Lehmans left the world of smoke and mirrors and went into banking.


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  1. It struck me when I was at the WeltWeihnachtsCircus in Stuttgart on 31st December that there are quite a number of acts from the former Soviet Union, and I also thought it was one way to make a living, though I couldn’t manage it myself. Andrey Jigalov was a clown. The rest aren’t all listed. (Two weird Hungarian gymnasts called Silver Power, with funereal music, but I digress).

    1. Miriam Neirick, When Pigs Could Fly and Bears Could Dance: A History of the Soviet Circus: ‘As A. Georgiev wrote in 1961, “Circus art in our country, like all forms of Soviet culture, is national in form and socialist in content. The development of national traditions and the specificity of national forms serves the ideas of proletarian internationalism and guarantees the further flowering of Soviet circus art.”’

      I guess they’re cheaper, too.

  2. Thanks, very interesting, here a brief Lehmann’s bio made some years ago:
    Christian Lehmann was born 1795 in a German family at Copenhagen, in 1818 with brother Andreas moved to Russia. In Moscow and later St. Petersburg earned money from menagerie and street theatre, soon became famous (visited by Russian Tzar in 1830). In February 1836 their theatre (“balagan”) burned, 100+ spectators lost lives. In early 1840s “Lehmann brothers Russian Pantomime” moved to Rotterdam. In 1844 starts Christian’s cooperation with aeronaut Kirsch, and soon becomes balloonist himself. In both, theatre and aeronautics, Lehmann impressed Vienna, Budapest, Königsberg etc. In June 1846 Prague. In October 1846 Lehmann’s family (nine children) with balloon (“Der Adler von Wien”) sailed to New Orleans, ready for aeronautical productions. But few weeks later balloon burned at plantation near the city. Lehmann returned to theatre, in Havana, New Orleans, 1847 New York etc. Called “Lehman family” they joined Ravel Troupe. Another tragic moment came on Christmas Eve 1850 at Niblo’s Garden Lehmann’s youngest daughter Adelaide costume catch fire and the girl died few days later (Lehmann on a steamboat to Havana on December 28th with Ravel Troupe then). Lehmann’s other children later took over the leading role, but Christian mentioned often as master of scene transformations. In 1867 family moved to Australia, Melbourne and Sydney theatres. Returning in 1868, Lehmann’s wife died, Christian Lehmann passed away in August in San Francisco. 

    1. I find your information on The Lehmann Family troupe fascinating!! You see, they are my direct ancestors. Christian Sr. is my 3rd great grandfather, and his son Andrew is my 2nd great grandfather. My great grandfather Julius and his brother Leon were part of the troupe in their childhood (I am in possession of his costumes and family letters written home, from all over the world.

      Some of your information was very enlightening to me, thank you! However, other “facts” you stated are actually incorrect. Perhaps you could cite your sources so I could search further?

      ANY information you can provide would be invaluable to me, as I am trying to create a family history for genealogical purposes, to share with the rest of the direct descendants. Thank you for your assistance!

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