Derbyshire's Fairground Attraction

PUBLISHED: 14:46 28 April 2010 | UPDATED: 16:16 20 February 2013

The finished work - Paul Nichols Waltzer

The finished work - Paul Nichols Waltzer

Neil Calladine explores the little known Derbyshire craft of Fairground Art

Derbyshire has always had strong links with the fairground industry, boasting no less than three of the countrys oldest charter fairs, at Ilkeston, Ripley and Melbourne as well as the classic back-end fair at Belper.

Belper has even closer ties with the showmen. The Coppice ground, situated just off the Market Place was, and to a lesser extent still is, a well-known winter quarters for the showmen and the town was also home to the firm of caravan and fairground decorators, A Barnes and Son.

A Barnes came to Belper from St Neots in Bedfordshire to work for Harrisons, a firm of caravan decorators. By 1884, at the age of 21, he had founded his own business, which became A Barnes and Son.

He very quickly moved into fairground decoration his early work would have come from the showmen who stayed in the Coppice ground. The firm had two large workshops in which the rides would be painted and they used to put the top rounding boards and panels round the walls, eight or nine at a time, and rotate them round.

Caravan decoration was another speciality, although the entrance was very tight and special levers had to be used to turn the caravans around. On one particular occasion that the founders grandson, Vernon Barnes, recalls, a caravan was too big even to get into the building and the end of the building had to be made higher to get it in. It was a famous caravan called the White Lady, which belonged to Pat Collins and had come from Wales.

Barness main artist was Mr Barratt who specialised in painting local scenes on hoopla stalls and other equipment and some of his work has survived to this day a hoopla stall owned by showman John Richardson still has some fine scenes from the Peak District.

Vernon Barnes also recalled painting a childrens roundabout made as a wedding present for the late Jim Fantom of Ripley. It was what is known as a dobby set, but was especially rare as it had peacocks as well as the more common horses. It became a familiar site at many Derbyshire fairs and was a particular favourite at Belper fair. I wonder how many people who admired it knew that it was painted in the town?

Eventually, Barnes moved away from fairground and caravan work the caravans were getting bigger and more difficult to get into the workshops and they became household painters and decorators. Then when Vernon Barnes retired the business closed down completely.

However, the story of fairground art in Derbyshire does not end here. Pete Tate is a fairground fan whose first attempts at painting were on models he made of rides in the early 1960s. He would show these to local showmen, almost all of whom would say the models are good but the paint work is rubbish go and see Fred (Fowle) down in Balham!

Fred Fowle was a great exponent of fairground art, reflecting the changes in taste that took place throughout the 1950s and 60s. He produced wonderful scrolls and vivid pictures of lions and tigers. He would often take his ideas, particularly for the lettering on the rides, from advertising displays he would see as he went to work one of his most famous was a depiction of the Esso Tiger, while the famous 20th Century Fox symbol inspired much of his lettering work. He also created a vivid lion in similar style to the tiger.

Pete had relatives in Balham, where Fred Fowles workshop was located, so whenever he went to see them he would visit Fred, who he describes as the Rolls-Royce of fairground painters, and watch him at work. Pete became the last person to be taught by Fred. He founded the firm of Tate Dcor at the 1976 Belper fair when showman Albert Holland invited him to paint the handrails of his Cyclone ride, and he has been painting in the same style at his Derbyshire workshop ever since.Fowle offered Pete the use of his paper patterns but right from the outset he refused for, as he quotes, I preferred to make my own as, in my opinion, designing is the best part of the job!

First the rounding boards those illustrated are from the Waltzer of showman Paul Nichols are brought in and laid out around the workshop. Pete begins by outlining the design on the first board. This is copied onto tracing paper, small holes are punched through the lines and then transposed onto each board, using a bag filled with blue chalk known as a pounce bag. It is necessary to follow this procedure, as each board has to match up when in position on the ride.

Each step of the process has to be repeated on every single board before moving on to the next stage as continuity is essential. All lining out (painting a black outline around the edges of the design) and lettering is done freehand, while the background colours are filled in using an airbrush. Fred always considered lining out a tedious part of the job but for Pete it is what makes the whole work come alive, so is my favourite part of the job. There are as many as fifteen different steps from the pattern emerging to the finished design which slowly comes together as colours are added.

Once the boards are finished the larger front boards have to be lettered out in the same style with the owners name and the name of the ride. Cars, pay pox and bottom shutters also have to be designed and painted.

All in all it can take up to two years to paint a complete ride. So the next time you visit your local fair spare a few moments to examine the decoration on the rides or stalls. Who knows, it may well have been painted not so very far away!

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