Carter’s Steam Fair is a nationally-important vintage funfair and the finest example of the endangered craft of fairground art in the UK. There is now a very significant risk of the collection being broken up if it can’t find a new owner and a permanent home.
The Steam Fair is a traditional British vintage funfair featuring rides and side stalls from the 1890s to the 1960s, which have been lovingly restored using traditional techniques and heritage crafts. It is an iconic fair that has featured in many films and TV productions including Paddington 2 and Rocketman.
In May 2023 Heritage Crafts gained national media coverage when it listed fairground art as endangered on the Red List of Endangered Crafts, and the breaking up of the Steam Fair would be a significant loss both to the craft and to the cultural heritage of the UK.
Joby Carter and team have always taken an authentic approach to restoring fairground art, using traditional techniques and materials to preserve or replicate the work of iconic British fairground artists such as Fred Fowle. When his original ride artwork which features on various their rides became worn through wear and tear, the Carters team replicated it using traditional signwriting and fairground art techniques, unlike many modern Showmen who may have taken the opportunity to update the artwork.
Fairground owners Joby and Georgina Carter
The Carters family have toured the fair and added to the collection of rides since 1977, but in April last year the family announced that the 2022 tour would be their final one and, for the fair to flourish into the next generation, it needed an alternative future. The difficult decision was made to put the fair up for sale.
The fair is currently in storage to ensure that the rides and vintage vehicles are in optimum condition, but this is not a long term solution. If they cannot find the right home for the fair as a whole collection, they will be faced with no other option than to auction the rides off individually, something they have always been so keen to avoid.
The sale of Carters Steam Fair also represents a rare investment opportunity. Typically, vintage fairground rides are bought when they are in need of restoration and vintage rides are rarely sold as a collection. This is the first time an immaculate vintage funfair has been sold ready to operate. The collection includes 13 vintage fairground rides and a selection of side stall games which date from the 1890s to the 1960s. They have all been faithfully restored using traditional techniques and are in pristine condition.
With the Carters’ blessing, Gary Rivers, a loyal fan of the fair, has set up a campaign and petition to help keep this rare collection of vintage rides together.
Joby Carter, fairground artist, signwriter and manager of Carter’s Steam Fair, said:
“We’re really keen that the collection stays together and that our one of a kind collection of vintage rides are preserved in an indoor environment. This is about the next chapter and someone else breathing life into the collection and for it to be operated by a new team rather than being managed by us”
Gary Rivers, fan of the fair and creator of the petition said:
“I’ve been a fan of the fair my whole life. I grew up in Reading and used to visit at Woodley and Reading so this is a head and heart thing. It’s such a brilliant opportunity to do something fantastic. It’s not just a ‘product’ that you can commodify or see somewhere else; there is really nothing else quite like it. With a bit of imagination and the right investor, there’s potential to make something fantastic out of this, such as a living museum to teach people about energy and engineering. I hope that this petition helps raise awareness and ultimately means we can find an investor or organisation that appreciates the intrinsic values of the fair including its heritage and aesthetic value and over time it can become a viable business for them.”
Mary Lewis, Heritage Crafts Endangered Crafts Manager, said:
“Fairground art is an endangered heritage craft that is of particular cultural significance to the UK. The loss of this important collection of craftsmanship would permanently damage public awareness of the rich cultural heritage of fairground art and funfairs and will further endanger the transfer of endangered crafts, skills and knowledge to the next generation.”
Images copyright Carters Steam Fair
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
|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.
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
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/