See also signwrighting, gilding, reverse glass signpainting and brilliant cutting.
|Group or community to which this craft is culturally important e.g. geographical, religious community, cultural identity, cultural practice, traditional industry or occupation||Showmen and fairgrounds|
|Group or community where this craft is currently practised||Showmen and other people associated with the fairground (they may have been taught by showmen or be enthusiasts and fairground preservationists).|
|Origin in the UK||19th Century|
|Current number of makers and/or people who hold the knowledge of this craft within the community||11-20 in total
Approx. 8 commercial fairground artists.
Approx. 10 who practice for their own purposes e.g. painting their own rides.
There will be a number of people and families within the Showmen community who will paint and decorate their own rides but may not identify themselves as fairground artists or practice commercially.
|Current number of trainees and/or people who are learning the craft||No formal apprentices or trainees
Joby Carter runs short courses in fairground art and signwrighting.
|Other makers||Not known
The fairground art style is often imitated by other artists and graphic designers who may not have been trained in the craft.
Early fairground art styles featured intricate wood carvings, painted banners and exotic jungle and animal scenery. With limited access to books or media and foreign travel beyond the means of most, a painting at the fairground was probably your best chance to encounter a lion, giraffe or polar bear!
Gilding is an important feature of fairground artwork, with genuine gold leaf being used in early styles; later the use of coloured glazes painted over aluminium leaf became popular, amber yellow giving an impression of real gold, though much cheaper! These glazes were christened “Flamboyants” and feature heavily in fairground art.
The 1930s saw faster, lighter rides appear in fairgrounds, which often featured more uniform Art Deco “jazz” patterns. These could be quickly produced by lessskilled painters working to the designs of a head artist.
After the Second World War booming economic conditions led to showmen increasing the size and grandeur of their equipment, which of course needed new artwork to reflect the culture and fashion of the time, with space travel being a particular favourite.
The 1970s and 80s saw changing tastes with many new rides featuring spectacular airbrushed paintings, often depicting film and music stars, fast cars or sporting heroes.
Today many artists focus on recreating older artwork styles whilst others continue to push boundaries creating new themes, with Showmen always looking to keep their attractions ahead of the competition.
Skills handed down through the generations
Amongst the earliest names known to paint regularly for the fairgrounds was William Spilsbury of Bristol, who worked for local showmen painting animal portraits and jungle scenery, a popular fairground theme. In the early 1900s Spilsbury took on an assistant, Albert Howell, who excelled at animal and jungle scenes as well as painted show banners. Upon Spilsbury’s death in 1907, Albert began working freelance, placing an advert in World’s Fair reading “A.S.Howell, Artist and Decorator, high class painting and decoration for all kinds of exhibitions”.
After a few years and with a growing family to support, Albert accepted a job with George Orton, so moving to Burton on Trent and gaining a steady income. Here, Albert joined a team of painters led by the talented artist Herbert Darby, who was responsible for the designs of the firm’s spectacular Scenic Railway switchbacks with themes of ancient mythology, jungle scenery and the animal kingdom.
By 1930 Albert Howell’s son Sidney had joined the now Orton and Spooner paint shop and he succeeded Darby as head artist in 1933. Sid was an exceptionally gifted artist and had a keen eye for the contemporary designs of the 1930s, creating Art Deco inspired “jazz patterns” which came to decorate most of Orton’s rides of the time. Sid was a brilliant sign writer, creating many ride fronts with his characteristic letterforms and was equally skilled in scenic art in a wide range of subjects.
The other great ride manufacturer of the 1930s was R.J. Lakin of Streatham, where there was always a busy paint shop. Robert Lakin had worked at Orton and Spooner in the 20s demonstrating the firm’s equipment but decided to set up his own company in London.
Painter William Hall followed Lakin from Burton to London to establish a new paint shop but it was William’s son Edwin who came to prominence in the 1930s.
Edwin was talented in many styles and themes including jungle scenery, motorsports and chariot races. Also an excellent sign writer, Edwin developed his own letterforms in many styles.
Sitting outside of the paint shops of the major manufacturers of this period, the showman and artist Charles Duffield built and decorated games and side stalls in his own unique style of scrollwork and lettering. Duffield’s work often required many duplicate artworks, which he used a clever combination of hand painting and stencilling to create. In terms of output, Duffield might well be the most prolific painter mentioned here and happily a great deal of his work survives.
After the Second World War the larger manufacturers began moving away from fairground work, so the former Lakin painter Fred Fowle set up in business with Edwin Hall’s brother Billy.
An unassuming and methodical man, Fowle would become the best known of the fairground painters. Fowle was at first helped with design by Edwin Hall; typical patterns might feature winged wheels, ribbon scrollwork and lightning flashes.
By 1964 Fowle had set up on his own in Balham and he decorated dozens of rides and stalls over the next twenty years, developing his own style using aluminium leaf and flamboyant enamels, often inventing his own unique and stylised letterforms. In collaboration with Fowle a great many ghost trains and fun houses were painted by Roger Vinney, with scenes depicting monsters, ghosts, witches and usually a self-portrait!
As a master craftsman who was eager to teach, many helpers were taken on over the years working alongside Fowle and long-time assistant Len Huckle, with apprentice Mark Gill and Pete Tei becoming prominent artists in their own right during the 80s and 90s. Gill runs his paint shop near Sydney, Australia, catering for local showmen but is also known to travel back to the UK for special commissions. Tei, who works near Derby, is known for his work under the name “Tate Decor” and particularly his modern twist on Fowle’s techniques, nicknamed Tateworm owing to its swirling lines and vibrant colours.
There are of course many more artists within the fairground community who have practised and handed down their skills over many years, all contributing to this unique art form.
Historical details provided by Dingles Fairground Museum https://www.dinglesfhc.co.uk/
Fairground art is culturally important as a form of outsider art that has been continuously practiced within travelling showmen community since the 19th Century. It has always reflected the fashions and themes of the day, as well as having its own specific heritage. In the UK most of us will have been in contact with more fairground art than we have Old Masters, and yet these artists have never become household names outside of the fairground community.
Showmen have always understood that the bigger and brighter their attraction was, the more custom they might attract, so an up to date and attractively painted “flash” (artwork) became a must. “It’s the Flash which brings the cash!”
- Handpainted signwriting
- Use of gold, silver and aluminium leaf
- Use of “flamboyant” paint (more translucent than enamel and used over silver or aluminium leaf)
- Blending, swirls, scrolls
- Lettering that is responsive to the space – e.g. following the surfaces of fairground rides etc.
- Creating pictorial scenes (e.g. Carter’s Steam Fair), traditionally was often given pride of place but lettering has now often taken its place
Different fairs and different travelling families have their own distinct styles but there is no local variation as such.
Reverse glass signpainting
Airbrushed mural painting
Showmen’s waggon building
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Awareness of the craft: most people don’t see it as distinctive from signwriting.
- Lack of skilled practitioners: There are very few people with the skills of restoring original fairground art and so repairs and repaints are not of the highest quality.
- Lack of training opportunities: There are no formal training opportunities and it is difficult to find apprenticeships or people to teach.
- Loss of skills: Due to a lack of training, many fairground artists are self-taught and don’t always have the higher level skills of their predecessors.
- Loss of skills: The popularity of vinyl lettering (in the 80/90s) impacted the passing on of skills, although there is now a resurgence of interest in the traditional skills and their aesthetic.
- Changing tastes and fashions: Airbrushing in the 90/2000s has impacted on handpainted traditional fairground art although this has also become an art form in its own right.
- Emulations and imitations of fairground art: This is particularly the case with 1940s and 50s style work. Many artists and graphic designers imitate fairground art style without any training in the underpinning craft skills.
- Poor restorations: These can be done in a vague ‘fairground’ style but don’t have the skill or expertise of a trained fairground artist.
- Availability of materials: The paints are not as readily available as they used to be.
- Decline of travelling funfairs
- Fairground Heritage Trust
- Dingles Fairground Museum
- Showmens’ Guild
- Carters Steam Fair
- Society for Independent Roundabout Proprietors
- National Fairground and Circus Archive
Craftspeople currently known
- Joby Carter, Carters Steam Fair
- Aaron Stephens, Valentine Signs
- Amy Goodwin
- Pete Tei, Tate Decor
- Harley Harris, H Harris Signwrighting
- Tom Tooley, Tooleys Amusements
- Chris Thomas
- George Hebborn
- Lloyd Holland
- David Manders
- Anna Carter – pictorial artist at Carters Steam Fair
- Katy Morgan
- John Pocket
- Kevin Scrivens – Fairground restorer
- Simon Harris – Fairground restorer
- Horton’s Steam Fair
- Katie B Morgan Decorative Art
- Chris Fenney, Traditional Fairground Co
Mark Gill is based in Sydney.
There are no formal training opportunities in Fairground Art or Signwriting.
- Joby Carter runs short courses in Fairground Art and Signwriting
With thanks to Aaron Stephens, Amy Goodwin and Joby Carter for their contributions to this page, Jan 2023.
Carter’s Steam Fair have been working with Reading University to introduce students to fairground art and signwriting.
- Damian La Bas, Where tradition meets innovation: the timeless allure of fairground art. Oct 2022 https://wepresent.wetransfer.com/stories/fairground-art-history
- Carter’s Steam Fair YouTube https://www.youtube.com/@CartersSteamFairOnline/videos
- Geoff Weedon and Richard Ward, Fairground Art: The Art Forms of Travelling Fairs, Carousels, and Carnival Midways, Published by Artabras, 1981
- Fred Fowle, series of short films, Our Business is Fun https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7FRQoT1jBdU
- Dingles Fairground Museum https://www.dinglesfhc.co.uk/
- Joby Carter and Scarlett Rickard, Signwriting: Tips, tricks and inspiration, Published by Carter’s Entertainment Ltd, 2020.
- Fairground Heritage Trust https://www.fairground-heritage.org.uk/