Without doubt, the collection of fairground art at Dingles Fairground Heritage Centre in Devon is the most important in the country. It is a world-class collection of British fairground art from the 1880s to the 1980s.
Fairground art has long been neglected by historians, ethnologists and industrial archaeologists alike. Being neither the product of rural crafts nor the art school, it has, with rare exceptions, been ignored. Since the late 1970s, fairground artefacts such as carved horses and painted panels have gained museum status as they became highly collectable. Fairground art consists generally of large panels or banners that draw immediate attention to the form of entertainment they are promoting: live shows, games or rides. It was produced by relatively unsophisticated showmen and the artists and craftsmen they employed; it is essentially popular in form and spirit.
Fairground art was only intended to be in use for a short period of time. The peripatetic lifestyle of the showmen meant constant building up and pulling down of shows, games and riding machines. Exposure to the elements meant constant repairing and repainting. Established ride builders such as Savages, and Orton Sons & Spooner were originally concerned with the more prosaic activities of coachbuilding and agricultural engineering. As their fairground manufacturing increased, their workforce of craftsmen came to include scenic artists and signwriters.
The idea of a National Fairground Museum was first explored in the early 1980s and The Fairground Heritage Trust formed in 1986. At that time many fairground artefacts were being shipped, via the antiques trade, to the United States and others were lost due to poor storage conditions. The Fairground Heritage Trust was formed to preserve and exhibit the way of life of the travelling showman. The Fairground Heritage Centre is the realisation of that vision. The Trust has had many false starts and the move to Devon was only planned during the past few years. The Centre is home to the National Fairground Collection.
The fairground was often at the forefront of popular entertainment. The moving picture show, for example, was first shown at a British fairground in 1897. It enjoyed a boom until the outbreak of the Great War, by which time most towns had a permanent cinema. The fairground showmen of the early twentieth century were masters at presenting illusion, sham-opulence and offering a glimpse of fantasy. The magic of coloured fairy lights, in a stark, harsh world, existed at the fairground before the use of electricity or running water in the home. In the early twentieth century, country folk from humble candle-lit cottages could board a richly upholstered Venetian gondola on a Switchback ride, assisted by uniformed attendants, and whirl around a steeply undulating track, around gilded carvings, bevelled mirrors and enjoy the latest music on a grand military band organ, all for tuppence a ride. The pennies added up to great fortunes in some cases and the showmen’s dynasties that still exist today were founded.
By far the oldest ride in the Trust’s Collection is the legendary Rodeo Switchback. Believed to have been built by Savages of King’s Lynn for James Pettigrove, possibly as a Velocipede in as early as 1880, this is the last remaining Spinning Top Switchback in existence, and probably also the oldest surviving fairground ride in the country. Its early history is shrouded in mystery. This, along with the rides once owned by the Edwards family of Swindon, forms the nucleus of the Trust’s Collection. It is unique in that a whole travelling fair has been preserved.
The name of Edwards was famous throughout Wiltshire and its neighbouring counties. The travelling fairground firm founded by Bob Edwards in the 1900s was not the largest, nor the one that travelled over the widest of areas, yet it was held in universal esteem by showmen, and occupied a very special place in the hearts of all who love the fair. The firm created five riding machines of such high quality that they form the core of our Collection. The Dodgem, Super Chariot Racer Ark and Supersonic Skid are now in working order. These three rides contain very many fine examples of classic post-war fairground art. The art of the showman harnessed the power of hundreds of pulsing electric lamps to highlight the subtle use of metallic silver and gold. A fourth ride, a Brooklands Speedway of the 1930s, has yet to be re-assessed. The firm’s original ride, a galloping horse roundabout, is on site and there are some wonderful carved horses and many painted panels on display.
At the end of the 1920s, the public were invited to crash cars into each other in relative safety, as the showman invested in the latest American novelty, the Dodgems. It was, in fact, a novelty that has never worn off. The vast area around the Dodgem car track gave the fairground artist great scope for huge pieces of public art. Initially, in the early 1930s, motor racing scenes were popular, but these, in turn, were replaced by the striking post-war images of speed lines and winged motifs in rich colours, making much use of gold and silver leaf. The favoured colours were creams, maroons and greens, and tone was even more important than colour.
The famous firm of Hall & Fowle was formed in the immediate post-war years and soon became the most sought after fairground decorators in the country. Fred Fowle, and Edwin and Billy Hall painted some fine examples that form part of the Fairground Heritage Trust’s Collection.
Popular culture was soon incorporated into the artwork of the fair. Disney’s Mickey Mouse was universally copied and Arnold Ridley’s play, The Ghost Train, inspired the iconic dark ride on the fairground. Ghoulish montages, based on the creations of 1930s Hollywood soon appeared on the Ghost Train. The example at the Fairground Heritage Centre is clearly signed by Hall & Fowle.
To find out more, Fairground Art, published in 1981 by The Fairground Heritage Trust Trustees, Richard Ward and Geoff Weedon, remains the definitive work on the subject. It is available from the Fairground Heritage Centre.
Guy Belshaw, Trustee and Honorary Press Officer
Text source: PCF / The Fairground Heritage Trust
This description was originally written for a catalogue.