The Rise of the Antiques Fair in the 20th Century

When I think of my time in the trade and the variety of experiences that have left their mark over the years, I might picture myself browsing in a newly discovered shop in unfamiliar territory; probing gently to see if the owner might be ‘friendly’ to the trade as I hunt for stock. I might see myself waiting, interminably, for one last lot at the end of a sale then only to be outbid with nothing to show for my efforts at the end of the day. I might remember the life stories told to me by customers over long afternoons or visiting an old dealer on his death bed who was surrounded by gilt-framed oils and eager to deal them on to those paying their last respects whilst they and he still could – but most of all I picture again and again with an intensity that does not dim, the vibrant and atmospheric hustle and bustle of buying and selling at antique fairs across the country. Whether they were of the vetted and stand-fitted variety, small weekly flea markets, showground events as big as a town or held in the middle of the night to suit the earliest of birds, they all felt like the life-blood of the trade and had in common the possibility of unearthing a ‘good find’ at any moment, earning a days wage from informed and eager buyers and like any social encounter, the chance to bemoan ‘the one that got away’ or ‘the good old days’ over a tea when the buying was done.

From such a nostalgic perspective then, what follows outlines briefly the emergence and development of antiques fairs as a sub-genre of the British antiques trade and views them as a real driving force of the trade at the time. It serves as an incomplete introduction to a subject yet to reveal much of its history and with a view to assessing the significance of fairs in cultural terms, further discussion of their role and importance for the British trade is warmly welcomed; especially as much of what remains to be unearthed lies intact in personal recollections, anecdote and the contemporaneous ephemera that is scattered across a host of private, institutional and commercial archives. All this potential ‘data’, together with a more comprehensive study of the variety and distribution of fairs, is yet to be collated and interpreted but I believe it to be very worthwhile; writing as someone who relied on both a shop and fairs to conduct business. I feel fairs in their own right were one of the more important developments the trade underwent in the last century and in contrast to the formative pressures shaping the trade in the 19th Century, they are one of the key features making it distinct and different from what came before. Whilst my research is merely a ‘work in progress’, a cultural geography of fairs is emerging, although dates, venues and individuals may change entirely or in emphasis as research in this area develops.

Whilst it is possible that markets may predate fairs by some years, so far I have found nothing to contradict the view that The Antiques Dealers Fair at the Grosvenor House hotel and organised by Alex G. Lewis and BADA president Cecil F. Turner in 1934 was the very first antiques fair proper to take place in Britain or elsewhere. Given the accumulation and flow of cultural and monetary wealth through the country in the centuries proceeding it and the recent affirmation that ‘we’ were at the very centre of culture and commerce at the British Empire Exhibition of 1924-5 it is not surprising that London would also be the focus of an antiques industry that traded on the fruits of history and Empire. Although we can speculate that the fair was held to promote the trade in a notable economic downturn, selling exhibitions were nothing new on an individual basis. Lewis and Turners’ innovation was to make the selling of fine antiques a collective event that in a suitable interior was both museum and market place and much imitated later. The Antiques Dealers Fair running annually up to the war and resumed in 1947 would have consequences for a greater appreciation and access to antiques by a wider public in the years to come and with its 1830 dateline, it charted the shifting perception of what constituted an antique in terms of age and quality and appealed to connoisseurs that could still afford to collect period furnishings and object d’art in a time of austerity – although this gradually gave way to fairs that became more democratic affairs and operated at every level and suited every pocket and taste in the decades to come. See http://www.grosvenor-antiquesfair.co.uk/history.html for further information on the origins and history of the fair.

The Grosvenor House fair led the way for a while and had the approval of its first royal patron in Queen Mary from 1937-53 but another mainstay of the London scene was soon to emerge when the inaugural Chelsea Antiques Fair was held at the Old Town Hall in the autumn of 1950. Its reputation was also helped by celebrity patronage over the years and British Movietone News promotions which brought it to the attention of an international market and to America in particular and by the 1980s it referred to itself as both the ‘famous’ and the ‘original fair’ which points to the imitation of its up-market and multi-day format and the competition, then, between promoters in a thriving market. Below is an image from British Movietone News reporting on the Chelsea Town Hall Fair from 1954 and is reproduced here with kind permission of the AP Archive that holds copyright for British Movietone media.

chelsea

Meanwhile, in the post-war years fairs began to take root in place, space and season across the British Isles as entrepreneurs and dealers in regional associations promoted and marketed events more proactively and affirmed their regional identity and presence in the market place. In a time of great optimism The West Country Antique Dealers Fair was held in 1951 and in the same year the Kensington Antiques Dealers Association held a fair in its own Town Hall. Whilst London was to see a range of significant fairs in the coming decades, the regions also fared well with fairs at Glasgow in 1965, Bath and Norwich in 1967, Bristol and Edinburgh in 1968 and Liverpool in 1969. These key fairs had both a professionalism and a budget for promotion as all produced accompanying catalogues for their events but it must be assumed that by the 1960s and certainly by the 1970s smaller fairs were mushrooming across Britain in great numbers – as respected promoter Caroline Penman’s association with Brighton Fair from 1959 is an example. See http://www.penman-fairs.co.uk/userfiles/image/details/penmans-history.pdf for more information.

The 1970s saw a continued growth in antiques fairs and two of note in London were Earls Court in 1973 (which by 1979 became the International Antiques Fair in recognition of the trade’s global reach) and Olympia in 1979, becoming the Fine Art & Antiques Fair by 1983 and thereby reinforcing another natural association. Fairs expanded in the regions also and in 1977 the first Northern Antique Dealers Fair was held in Harrogate. At the same time more ‘down market’ fairs were being established but the quality was still high by todays standards as the availability of antiques was greater and if London had Alexandra Palace and the Midlands had the Granby Halls, Leicester and ‘The Big Brum’ in Birmingham, the North had Leeds Queens Hall as Edinburgh’s had its Ingliston. These events had hundreds of stalls in cavernous and poorly lit spaces and the fair at Leeds, which I knew well, ran until 1989 until its old tram shed home was demolished. It opened its doors at 6 a.m. on Saturday mornings and ran monthly throughout the year and was typical of many and a magnet for the trade who came from far a field for the chance to buy or sell there. Here below is a picture of the soon to be demolished venue with its last fair still advertised and is a reproduced with kind permission of the owner of the image, Phil Edwards (http://bit.ly/1Esh2hg).

queenshall

When I joined the trade in 1985 Geoff Whittaker had just established the two day International Antique and Collectors Fair at Newark that year and held it each spring and autumn initially. It quickly came to influence the rhythm of the antiques dealers year and confirmed the notion that the supply of stock would flow from local auctions and markets to be ‘saved’ and taken to Newark where dealers who exhibited at fairs such as the democratically-titled Antiques for Everyone in Birmingham would be eager to add to their datelined and soon-to-be-vetted stocks and would always come to buy – and so on into the upper echelons of the trade. It is safe to say that dealers and collectors who operated in every strata of the trade came to Newark at some time or other in the 1980s and 1990s and was typical of a ‘fairs scene’ that flourished in the last decades of the century and in its short history the Newark Showground fair, with its home and international buyers from all over the world, was arguably the culmination of a trading phenomenon that had gained in growing momentum over the proceeding years since fairs first emerged.

It only remains to say that antiques fairs in the 20th Century supplemented, perhaps at times competed with, but broadly enhanced a shop and auction based trade and added to the vibrancy of both dealing and collecting. They thus served as a conduit of the supply of goods through the trade and on into private or institutional hands throughout much of the century and warrant some closer examination within the wider scope of study for that reason alone – if not for their value as exciting episodes of social history in the making.

Graham Panico

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