With their wholesome sense of fun, fairground carousels, sideshows and bumper cars can’t help but raise a smile. But there’s a new interest in the painted pieces from the funfairs of yesteryear: “In the past, decoration was seen merely as a device to entice the public onto rides,” says Vivienne Roberts, who specialises in folk art at London’s Julian Hartnoll Gallery. “But these pieces are now being recognised as folk art that can be hung on walls or displayed as sculpture.”
This shift in perspective is prompting a re-evaluation of the genre. Back in 2001, an article in Government Auction News observed that decorated rounding boards (from the sides of carousels) could be found for as little as £100. In 2014, Julian Hartnoll sold a pair of 3ft-high, 1940s Disney-style wooden panels from a children’s ride for £1,300. (Similar pieces are currently for sale, from £650.) Salvage specialists Lassco recently sold a gag card (humorous slogan panel) for £1,450. “The price of these depends on the text,” says Chris Martin of the Brunswick House “The saucier it is, the higher the price. That one said: ‘Step On It, Big Boy’.”
The rising cultural and aesthetic value of fairground artwork is in large part thanks to exhibitions such as Tate Britain’s 2014 show British Folk Art, and furniture showcases like the thrice-yearly Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair, which recently had a focus on fairground memorabilia. “Fairground art is a unique genre of traditional British art and design,” says Martin. “These pieces have genuine artistic integrity.” Lassco now has a knockout pair of wooden columns (232cm-high, £2,950) for sale, thought to have decorated a Noah’s Ark ride, with rosettes above the columns and initialled WN, referring to William Nichols, a prominent big-ride operator during the 1920s and 1930s.
The American market has traditionally taken heritage folk art very seriously, so prices here are usually higher – even more so of late as dealers have seen increased demand. “In our experience prices have jumped by up to 200 per cent in the past few years,” says Casey Hale, partner at Urban Country, a Los Angeles-based dealer that sells internationally through 1stdibs. “Shooting gallery targets – particularly those by Dickman and Mangels, for example – are now highly prized. Single targets can fetch up to $50,000 [if signed], but entire shooting galleries are rare and can easily reach six figures on the private market.” Current stock includes a Carnival Clown shooting target ($4,500), while at Julian Hartnoll there’s a set of metalwork shooting gallery figures for £1,000.
Significant appeal comes from the fact that these collectables weren’t just decorative – they were used; in the golden era of the travelling fair, the late-19th and early-20th century, carousel gallopers were ridden with boisterousness, carnival knockdowns were endlessly bashed and posters announcing the shows were glued onto fence posts and buildings as the fair moved from town to town. Few have survived such energetic use; but this increases collectability. Posters, especially, are a big draw, being easy to display amid a broader art collection. “Those featuring magicians and magic and are most sought after,” says Kirill Kalinin, founder of vintage-poster dealer Antikbar. But his personal favourite in stock is a 1933 Russian poster (£1,450) for a performance of flying sledges by the Buslaev Brothers. “Striking geometric designs and unusual angles and compositions make it very desirable,” he says. “It is also genuine, which is another vital factor for collectors. Most posters were lithographs, so if the provenance is unknown, look for strong colours and an outline of the image on the reverse.”
Signs of use testify to the colourful life of fairground objects, so unlike other collectables, “imperfections like flaking paint and the odd dent do not matter,” says George Johnson, owner of Lady Kentmore Antiques in Scotland. “What’s important is the quality of the original work.” Three brightly painted 3ft-high speedway bikes, on a tilt as if screaming round a bend and bearing the marks of having been ridden, recently sold for £425 each.
Many of the genre’s early craftsmen were former ship carvers, driven from the docks by the popularity of steam; their elaborate work is a masterclass in hand-carving. Pieces bearing a big-name signature will fetch a high price, says antiques dealer Drew Pritchard. A galloper by a late-19th- or early-20th-century carver such as AE Anderson or Charles Spooner will sell for several thousand pounds. Other key names include Savage’s, the first of the large firms to make steam roundabouts in the 1860s, Andersons of Bristol and Hall & Fowle, whose 7ft hoopla board is for sale at Julian Hartnoll for £1,650. Unnamed pieces command lower prices; standouts at Wales-based Pritchard’s have included colourful rides in the shape of a 3ft wooden turkey (£250), miniature (34in) painted metal ponies (£200) and a blue fibreglass two-seater supercar (£750) from the 1950s.
Nostalgia is also a huge draw. “The items are a throwback to a vanishing portion of our cultural landscape,” says 1stdibs dealer Tod Donobedian, who is based in California and recently sold an exquisite set of carnival knockdowns for $4,500. “Back in the day when the fair came to town, it was greeted with much excitement. You can still feel that sense of anticipation and thrill when you look at these treasures.”
Richard Hsieh, a London-based American financier, has been hooked for precisely that reason ever since he bought his first piece – a sign saying “Here We Go” – five years ago. “I’m drawn to the associations with the innocence of youth,” he says. “These are quirky, nostalgic, joyous pieces of art.” His latest acquisition is a dodgem car, bought for €2,000 at a Parisian flea market and now displayed in his sitting room as a sculptural talking point. Indeed, as original art goes, it’s certainly a playful conversation starter – and adds a wonderfully surprising and playful element to a room.