In the age of industrialization, mechanical ingenuity was also applied to the amusement industries that arose to capitalize on leisure time and the discretionary income newly available to fill those hours. One such amusement was the carousel. Although mechanized carousels were introduced into America by the 1860s, it was not until the innovation that allowed the horses to move up and down, patented by Coney Island manufacturer William F. Mangels, that the industry was revolutionized. Mangels did not make the horses himself but employed talented carvers, including a number of Eastern European Jewish immigrant woodcarvers who contributed to what is known as the Coney Island style. This was characterized by fantastical imagery, ornate embellishment, and a new realism and ferocity. Many of the carvers went on to establish their own workshops and carousels.
Among the most celebrated was Marcus Charles Illions. Born of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, he immigrated as a teenager first to England, where he honed his carving skills, and then to the United States in 1888. He found employment in Charles I. D. Looff’s Brooklyn carousel shop, and by 1892, he had established his own manufactory. Illions created some of the most dynamic carousel animals ever made, with wild eyes and manes flying in the air; one could almost feel the lather on their coats. He did not carve many menagerie animals, and this rare lion is one of just a few extant examples of this form. Stylistically, it also relates to religious carvings of lions flanking decalogues that Illions made for placement atop torah arks in Brooklyn synagogues.
Stacy C. Hollander, “Lion,” exhibition label for Self-Taught Genius: Treasures from the American Folk Art Museum. Stacy C. Hollander and Valérie Rousseau, curators. New York: American Folk Art Museum, 2014.