The man who could paint anything
The Sid Howell story
Fairground art is rarely given a second thought, yet most people encounter it more often than, say, a work by Monet. Fairground artists are just ordinary people who never become household names, yet like any art form there are those who practice it who become influential and stand out for their ability to transcend the ordinary. Sid Howell was one such artist.
Sid Howell was born in Albert Street, Bristol in 1906. The family move to Burton-on-Trent in 1913 saw him attending the Victoria Road Boys’ School from the age of seven to 14. During this period, which spanned the first World War, as well as receiving the normal art instruction at school he was also coached by his father, Albert, which included hands-on experience at Orton & Spooner.
By the time Sid reached his 18th birthday he had completed a full-time course at Burton art school and had passed every examination since the age of fourteen. Sid continued his art studies on a part-time basis and by 1925 he was qualified to teach art in most subjects, although this was not to be the direction he would choose for his career.
It would be wrong to assume that, as he had worked at Orton & Spooner helping his father, he would want a job there. For reasons best known to himself Sid managed to secure a post as a trainee draughtsman at Branston Artificial Silk (Burton) in 1927.
This company was based in a factory that had closed at the end of January 1925. It had belonged to Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell who used it to make pickle – and is where the well known brand name of ‘Branston’ pickle originated.
Sid worked at Artificial Silk for the next three years. Unfortunately, this new company had apparently been beset with problems from the start and was subsequently closed early in 1930.
At 24 Sid was out of work in a period where jobs were hard to find and a return to Orton & Spooner became inevitable. At Orton & Spooner he became part of a formidable professional team and when he succeeded Herbert Darby as chief artist and designer in 1933 he was still only 27 years of age.
Being of a new generation, Sid was able to introduce completely new styles and design techniques to Orton & Spooner machines, as was evident in the Noah’s Ark and subsequent Speedway designs, some of which probably influenced other manufacturers of the same era.
Sid and his father, Albert, worked very well together as a team and when it came to the jungle scenes, it was extremely difficult to tell their work apart. The 1930s were to be busy years for them as new designs were always being sought, not only for decoration but machine styles as well. However, with the start of the Second World War, as with most people, Sid’s ambitions were to alter dramatically – but not before he had made his mark on the history of British Fairground.
By 1946 Orton & Spooner was back in business and Showman Robert Edwards had placed an order to rebuild and extend his Noah’s Ark, originally built in 1933/34. This presented Sid with the opportunity to design and paint his version of the fairground Ben Hur scene. The result was, arguably, the finest creation of his career.
The Ben Hur scene was not a new idea, but it was to be a ‘one off’ for both Sid and Orton’s. The ride was renamed Super Chariot Racer and displayed the now famous jungle scenes on the rounding boards, no doubt painted by Albert, who also concentrated on the pay box and flights. Sid meanwhile completed the main front motif and shutters.
The photograph of the Ben Hur scene shown here speaks for itself and Sid’s dramatic interpretation is a lesson in perspective. The overall scene is 42 feet long and 15 feet high and on a curved surface. It was an art in itself to paint a line on a curved surface and make it look straight from all angles. Not only that, but the artwork on the whole machine had to look right at ground level from the front, back and sides.
Although it doesn’t get out much the Edwards Ark still exists as part of the Fairground Heritage Trust and remains a fitting tribute to two great artists and their colleagues.
But work at Orton & Spooner wasn’t to last and Sid was soon forced to reply on his own resources to find work. Spells at Belle Vue amusement park and Blackpool, where he worked on the famous Illuminations, followed – as did occasional spells of freelance work – but he was not to work seriously in fairground again. He died in 1966.
Author: Dave Page
Images on this page, courtesy of the Howell collection and Craig Cooper.