Fairground art has a style all of its own, even though many of the images seen in it are often stolen from different original sources. The collection at the museum covers the period from the old painted banners to the latest styles of decoration.
One of the most unusual displays of Fairground Art in the Heritage Centre is a number of old show banners from various collections, including this painting showing Stephan Bibrowski better known as Lionel the Lion-Faced Man, who was exhibited in side shows.
Another of the banners shows Salome in the Dance of the Seven Veils. It was painted by one of the best-know fairground artists of the day, Alfred James Smith of Peckham. Born in 1866, he and his father, Alfred Snr, became well-established as a scenery and banner painters.
There is some beautiful fairground art and it is a great tribute to the artists who painted the scenes and images. These panels were once used in Hatwell’s Galloping Horses, which travelled in the Cotswolds until the 1980s, but could be from a much earlier ride.
They are the work of Henry Whiting, a scenic artist who worked in St. Saviour, Norwich, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Whiting, who was born in Norwich in 1839, was the son of a schoolmaster. These may be the only remaining examples of Whiting’s work in the country.
The panels were acquired in 1986 with the help of funding from the Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund and National Art Collections Fund.
Bullfighting is an unlikely scene to have painted on the front boards on a fairground ride, and why Ashley Brothers of Nottingham chose the theme has long disappeared into the mists of time.
Although politically incorrect today, the scene is, nevertheless, like so much of Edwin Hall’s work, accurately depicted, with a Moorish Spanish backdrop. In contrast, as was often the case, the rounding boards depicted jungle scenery.
When Ashleys stopped using the boards they were left in store at Cropwell Bishop, Nottingham, and were acquired by Lawrence Harper, who has kindly loaned them for exhibition at the Museum.
If you look carefully at the photograph on the right you will see the painted motorbikes, shown above, right on top of the front boards of John Powell’s Supreme Speedway, another fine product of Orton, Sons & Spooner, and probably painted by Sid Howell.
Powell’s Speedway had shiny, chromium-plated motorbikes, exactly like the ones on the Chariot Racer in the museum.
After many years at South Shields the ride was scrapped, but the family kept these two painted boards in store at the park, and they are on loan from the Powell family for display at the Centre.
Dodgems have been a popular ride at fairs since the 1920s. The chance to drive your own car without worrying about the consequences of crashing appeals greatly.
Crow’s Dodgems on the Town Moor in Newcastle
Sam Crow was based in Middlesbrough and travelled an area which took in North Yorkshire, County Durham and Northumberland. His parents travelled a steam roundabout at the turn of the century, but when his father died in 1901, Sam was left, at 20, to run the business himself.
In the 1930s Sam looked towards the more modern rides that were becoming popular at fairs in the North East. Crow’s Swanee Ride was the first roundabout he bought new. This was a Noah’s Ark, like the Chariot Racer here at the museum. In 1935 he bought a new Skid from Robert Lakin, and three years later the Dodgems were built by the firm for Sam Crow.
Knowing that there were already several tracks travelling in the area, Sam wanted his to be the best, and so the order to Lakins specified a run of painted boards depicting a motor racing scene, painted by their chief artist, Edwin Hall.
When Sam Crow died in 1964, the Dodgems passed to his son, William, who continued to travel the ride around the north-east. By the 1970s the cars were looking too old-fashioned to use and the boards were left at their depot in Northallerton. They were collected by Michael Smith and after several years in store were amongst the first items to be exhibited at Dingles.
All the old varnish has been removed and the boards restored by Tate Décor to bring back the fresh, vibrant colours in which they were originally painted.
Fairground art has always been a wonderful mixture of colours, themes and styles. Some of the most magnificent rides built in the twentieth century incongruously portrayed classical Roman chariot racing, along with jungle foliage and scenes depicting Venice. It really did not matter.
Edwin Hall was one of the true masters of the 1930s, and after the war it was left to his brother, Billy and another former employee from Lakins, Fred Fowle, to continue to develop fairground art. Their work is evident on the Edwards’ Dodgems and Skid and John Brett’s Ghost Train.
At Orton and Spooner’s works in Burton it was Albert and Sid Howell who led in their field. They are the artists who were responsible for the magnificent scene on the front of Edwards’ Chariot Racer.
Sid Farmer’s art work on a panel from a 1950s Waltzer that travelled
in the North West until the 1980s. Each panel was named after a
different waltz, and this is part of the detail on the board dedicated to
the Kentucky Waltz.
By the 1950s neither Lakins nor Ortons were building new fairground rides any more, but their legacy lived on. In Scotland, where George Maxwell continued the work of ride construction, it was Sid Farmer, whose best work was to be seen on the Waltzers built in the 1950s.
In London Edwin Hall’s brother, Billy Hall, formed a partnership with another ex-Lakin artist, Fred Fowle. Even after the partnership split, Fred continued to be the best known fairground artist working in the country. For many years Fred Fowle’s workshop was an old tram shed in Balham.
The collection has some examples of the work of both Hall & Fowle, including the Ghost Train, and of Fred Fowle’s work, shown to its best on the front boards from David Wallis’ Waltzer.
Fred Fowle passed away in 1983 but his legacy has lived on.
Cubbins’ Ghost Train at Debdale Park, Manchester
The scenery from Benny Cubbins’ Ghost Train represents a rare example of the collaborative work of two of the best-known fairground artists, Fred Fowle and Roger Vinney.
It was painted for Lancashire showman, Benny Cubbins, in the mid-1970s, and used on the Ghost Train, which travelled in the north-west until sold in 1990.
Its new owner sold the scenery, which was acquired by Pete Tei, who has loaned it to the centre and will go on display for the first time in 2013.
Thomas Benson’s Dodgems with the scenery in place at Horsham in July 1983.
Tom Benson from Dorking was a well-known showman in the Surrey and London areas. Amongst the impressive array of fairground rides he travelled was a large Dodgem Track, built by Lang Wheels of Hillingdon Heath. The track, which was 80 feet in length, was bought new for the 1954 season.
At Bank Holiday Benson’s Dodgems opened on Hampstead Heath, against Robert Edwards’ Dodgems which are now in the Museum. To compete new scenery was added in 1956 by Edwin Hall, with false pillars and deep rounding boards at the ends of the track lettered: “T. Benson’s Joy Cars” along with the Dorking cockerel symbol, and “T. Benson’s Superior Amusements”.
The ride required a packing truck just for the scenery. The scenery was sold in 1990 and is now part of the collection on display at the Centre.