Fairground Art

Painted BannersThe fun fair has always relied on art work to entice its visitors into a heaven of sensorial enjoyment and illusion. Bright colours, exuberant carvings, intricate paintings and dazzling lighting have been a fundamental part of the fair since the early days of the fairground ride development in the Victorian era. Today the aesthetics of the travelling fairground still retain their own distinctive and unique identity designed to capture our senses and immerse us in the fairground atmosphere.

Early rides depended heavily on graphics to submerge visitors into the experience of the ride and the promise of an extraordinary experience. Historically a great deal of effort and skill has been invested in the creation of heavily ornate and lusciously visual rides and attractions in order to entice customers.

Depiction of fantastical scenes often using clever pictorial effects to emulate speed and movement or even to trick the eye into believing the impossible as well as every hit on the big screen or the top of the music charts have been part of the fairground as much as the shows and rides themselves.

While the artistic value of fairground art has help spark the magic of the fairground, its commercial character as an advertising tool has merged it to popular culture and dictated its stylistic evolution.

The fairground landscape is a prime exponential of changes in popular taste, artistic fashion, style and techniques which have developed hand to hand with social acceptability and expectation as well as technological progress. From the lavishly decorated Victorian rides with their heavily gild structures, opulent carvings, marble columns and scrolls to the contemporary wonders of engineering, fairground art depicts a fascinating evolution of art within popular culture at the heart of the entertainment industry.

The visual overload, the light, sound and smell, the elation of the rides and the cacophony of background noise is unique to the fair and was and is still used to overload the senses and submerge the fair goer into the fairground experience.

From Early Days to the Industrial Revolution

Wood Carving

The beginnings of fairground art can be traced back to the use of fabric banners to advertise the swarm of sideshows that populated the early travelling fairground. The graphics of the banners were already a key element of the attractions and an invaluable aid to vocalise the extraordinary wonders to be discovered behind the showfronts. The ease with which the banners could be fabricated and transported suited the living and travelling conditions of the showmen before the industrial revolution, while fulfilling the expectations of their customers.

The improvement on road networks and transportation during the mid-nineteenth century however had a great impact on the capacity of the showmen to transport larger and more complex structures, eventually deeming the simple banner unsuitable to meet their business ambitions. The same historical and mythological subjects used on the banner were transferred to wooden supports which dressed the showfronts depicting complex heroic and monumental scenes executed to high levels of artistic competence and taste. At the same time the fairground ride experienced great technological advancement both from a fabrication and design view point.

Decorative motives rapidly developed both thematically and stylistically fuelled by the Victorian hunger for discovery and the socio-political exuberance experienced at the time as well as the huge competition that the arrival of new technology sparked amongst the showmen. The fairground became populated by the most extraordinary constructions most people had access to and would ever experience at the time. Not only was the fairground the only source of popular entertainment but also the first place where many saw electricity and wonders of technology, science and nature for the first time. The visual demand on the fairground translated into the development of woodcarving as the favoured decorative medium, practice which will remain in use through to the early twentieth Century.

Some of the most successful fair carvers of the late 1900s were Orton and Spooner who made rides and living wagons and Anderson's of Bristol who were also well established carvers, starting in the ship-carving business.
Orton and Spooner were an amalgamation of two Burton upon Trent companies, George Orton and Charles Spooner, who worked together producing some of the most sought after wagons and shows of the turn of the century, with incredibly detailed and elaborate carved work and decorative effects. They remained pioneering fairground manufacturers until 1954 after which they functioned as a light engineering company until their closure in 1977.

Arthur Anderson was renowned for his galloper mounts, scrollwork, Italianate grotesque grins and flying ribbons as well as his fantastical animal cross-breed carvings. Anderson maintained this tradition until his death in 1936 and some say that the English galloper died with him.

The Victorian fairground sought to educate and thrill the masses by making accessible unreachable pursuits. Fairground art was critical to achieving this purpose while enhancing the appeal and enjoyment of the fair. Wood carving was taken to extreme limits of extravagance and the decoration of the rides and shows became instrumental to the success of the fair as well as the shows, which aimed at presenting the best, most unique and breath taking experience.

The popularity of public museums, late in the nineteenth century, did not escape the attention of the showmen, who were eager to react to public taste. Their influence can be seen in the mixture of neo-classical and rococo themes and styles and elaborately painted mythical and jungle themes that evolved in the fairground scene. Not only did these themes supply the demand for artistic excellence but also for the discovery of the unknown, the heroic and the exotic.

The Twentieth Century

Ghost Train

The beginning of the twentieth century started to experience a shift in artistic expression, progressively leaving the heavy carvings behind in favour of paint work. Although the painted scenes were both complex and executed to high standards, they proved cheaper and faster to produce as well as being more versatile and better suited to decorate the simple metal construction of the new, faster rides. At this point hunting scenes and elaborate compositions were still fashionable and it won't be until the economic depression of the 1930s that we see the next radical change in the aesthetics of the fairground.

The socio-economic climate of the depression pushed design away from flamboyant scenes, towards the more sober linear patterns of art-deco. Although the design aspects of the decoration were greatly simplified, they were highly stylised and made use of fashionable colour schemes to retain the visual impact of the fairground. These new designs did not put as much demand on the artistic skills of the fairground artist and could be produced faster and more economically by less accomplished artisans, decorators and sign painters. The shift between figurative and geometrical patterns is not unique to this era with both styles coming in and out of favour in fairground art over the following decades.

Twentieth century fairground art has often been defined as the merging point between popular and commercial art and it is from this point that great names in fairground art such as Fred Fowle, Edwin Hall and the Howell Family emerged. 'Sid' Howell was a very talented painter and designer which soon made him an influential figure at Orton and Spooner, whereas Edwin Hall and the artists at Lakins were responding to trends in the graphic and commercial design of the art-deco movement and Fred Fowle, one of the most innovative and skilled fairground artists of the twentieth century, merged his distinct interest in popular culture with his skill and talent to replicate the thrill of the ride while creating a completely original visual repertoire.

The war years saw a decline in the fairground activity including the construction and decoration of fairground rides. With the post-war the need to modernise became more pressing especially during the economic boom of the 1950s and the emergence of a new audience with spending power and a very specific taste and identity, the teenager.

The newly formed youth groups were indicative of a more aggressive youth culture tearing away from the past and eager to define its own fashion and cultural icons. This new demographic group became the main focus of the showman and has dictated the evolution of the fairground ever since creating an even stronger connection to popular culture.

During the 1950s rock and roll, motorbikes and anything fast and mechanical were the reigning elements of fairground decoration, wheels with wings and speed stripes appeared everywhere accompanied by new sound systems and faster rides, culminating in the space theme in the late 1950s with the landing of the first man on the moon. All aspects of society were captured by the fair once again; progress, social ambition and optimism, the boom in the manufacturing industry and all together the golden age of capitalism.

Later the 1960s saw once again a move away from figurative work towards flamboyant scroll and lettering work in psychedelic colours and the fairground art scene experienced an influx of showmen painters such as Albert Baker Jnr. Eric Holland, Norman Fenwick and Edward Percival amongst others. But it was the last decades of the twentieth century which experienced the fastest technological and social changes and by the 1980s two trends settled in the fairground scene. The crowd's demand for fast change in technology and aesthetics push the rides into more elaborate engineering machines in detriment of the art work. Metallic colours and effects used in geometrical patterns, amplified lettering, simplified colour schemes and bare metal were used to modernise classic rides and at the same time highly populated scenes from the latest hits from the big screen and the pop scene fill out every inch of available space. This split was a reflection of the different youth culture trends.
At this point a very characteristic artistic style started to develop with the use of the airbrush which proved to be the ideal media for the fast production of highly rendered, narrative scenes with a multitude of images cramming every available panel of every ride.

The adoption of the airbrush at the end of the 1980s allowed to create highly finished, realistic paintings, introducing very dynamic and effective aesthetics designed to suit the new age thrill rides as well as the expectations of the more visually and technologically demanding crowds. The return to elaborate compositions renewed the demand for specialist and technically accomplished artists to the fairground scene such as Matt, Pete Tei, DC Slater, Wul and Paul Wright. Some of these artists such as Pete Tei specialised in the development of the scroll work into new 'worms' and shape systems that adapted to the shape of the rides while introducing a more futuristic blend of metallic colours and effects. Others such as Paul Wright dedicated themselves to mastering airbrush work in the 'Miami' ride in all its aspects of design, composition and execution.

Meeting fair goer visual and cultural expectations remains key to the survival of the fairground. Airbrush art is highly suited to adapt to rapidly changing cultural and technological advancements as well as to new construction materials and complex lighting effects. This is yet another example of the adoption of new technologies and opportunities in the fairground to keep at the forefront of the entertainment industry. Its possibilities have been rapidly embraced and explored by the showmen who embedded it into the fair.

Current fairground artists continue to explore new themes and styles using every symbol youth culture identifies with and reflecting all the latest trends. Night club emblems from the likes of Cream and Ministry of Sound showing scenes of hedonism from the dance floor, extreme sports and highly sensual scenes reiterate the place of the fairground as the hub of pleasure, removed from every aspect of every day life's conformism, inhibition and control. Every desirable celebrity, cartoon hero and lifestyle aspiration is framed in pulsating lights and soundtracks.

Having reached its zenith in the 1990s airbrush art is expanding its possibilities with the use of digitally produced vinyl artwork, which allows the creation of very intricate compositions relatively quickly and cheaply and offers the most immediate option for keeping up with the rapid pace of current technological, social and cultural change.

Progressively the demand for more thrilling rides and the physical experience however, have taken over from the visual experience and currently the technological aspects of rides are more important than the visuals. Rides largely rely on simplistic paint work and elaborate lighting effects to enhance functional, minimalistic structures.
The twenty first century is the age of accessibility thanks to technology. The offer and possibilities for entertainment and leisure activities are greater and more accessible than ever before and providing novelty is increasingly difficult especially when customers' expectations have greatly increased from a young age. While colourful graphics still play a big role in juvenile rides, the most popular twenty first century adult rides are developed around the extreme physical experience and the engineering ingenuity to design the ultimate thrill, providing very little in the manner of visual suggestion. At the same time there is a melancholic desire to encounter retro rides that bring the older audience back to their childhood and 'the good old days'. In this age where we have embraced the immediacy of digital technology and information and services are so easily accessed, graphics have taken a step down in the fairground landscape to be substituted for the latest technology and impressive metal structures. It's not about the suggestion of what they can do through the use of visual dressings but about their actual performance.