British doesn't mean boring

Picassos apart, this country has produced modern art as exciting as any. Well, that's what the revamped, reorganised Twentieth- Century British Art Fair aims to show. John Windsor reports Piper, John Windsor and Ivon Hitchens, many to collectors w
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The Independent Culture
A SCOTLAND YARD surveillance team keeps watch from a discreet distance in the street as the jury for the elimination of boring British art sits under Judge Tumim, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons, at his London home. Four art dealers, two art critics and two full-time administrators sink into brown, leather-bound chairs, surrounded by brown, leather-bound books, in the library. Tea is served on the mahogany dining table and in cold weather an open fire crackles.

The jury - or, more precisely, the advisory committee of the Twentieth- Century British Art Fair, which opens at the Royal College of Art on Wednesday - has got tough on dealers, whose applications to exhibit are being more thoroughly vetted than before. In 1993, in the aftermath of the recession, the modern British art on sale at the fair was condemned by critics as the most boring since its inception in 1988. Leading dealers had pulled out, and a rump of tired middle-rankers was using it to sell traditional watercolours and feeble, 19th-century-style pastiches, and to dump dead stock, according to the show's critics.

Since that disastrous year, which threatened to be its last, the fair has been the focus of broad-brush insults, back-biting and gossip, before undergoing a sudden and unexpected rehabilitation last year under a new proprietor. This year there will be 52 exhibitors occupying, for the first time, both floors of the RCA. Prices: from pounds 100 upwards.

Judge Tumim is not only a champion of arts and crafts training in prisons but an ardent and discriminating collector of modern British art, including art by prisoners. He has written a moving appreciation of pictures by the late Jim Gilbert, jailed for drug smuggling, to be exhibited at the fair on Nicholas Bowlby's stand. The judge's daughter, Matilda, is an established artist.

Months prior to the announcement that his Home Office contract would end next month, he was cajoled into becoming the first "outsider" (non art-market) chairman by Gay Hutson - the public relations consultant who rescued the fair. Hutson, one of the fair's founder-directors, together with its organising secretary, Angela "Bunny" Wynn, took it over from the professional fair organiser Ivan Winstone. All that was necessary was a quiet chat between the three and pounds 200 to form a new company. The two new owners agreed to take on the fair's debts and Hutson became the major shareholder.

Winstone blames the unpropitious economic climate for the original fair's failure. "It was not profitable for the first couple of years, then the recession came and the bottom dropped out. We lost the cream of dealers and that made the pastiche art of the middle range more noticeable. People looked at the show and thought it had gone to the dogs, that we were letting anybody in.

"I decided that it was not going to be commercially viable and resigned. I was not prepared to risk any more."

Those were stirring times, much of the stirring being done by disgruntled, factious exhibitors plotting to form at least one rival fair. The white knight who whipped waverers back was one of Hutson's more inspired appointments to the advisory committee - Peter Nahum, a London 20th-century art dealer with an abrasive 18th-century disposition. His most publicised exploit, as BBC 1 Antiques Roadshow's art expert, is to have made the show's most valuable find - a mid-19th century album of watercolours of Manila that fetched pounds 265,500 at Christie's in July.

The fair was as good as saved when Nahum and fellow committee member Julian Hartnoll, London dealer in kitchen-sink art, badgered two top galleries, Waddington and Mayor, to return to last year's fair. "Some say that Peter's quite barmy," Hutson jokes, "but you need people like that. He's fearsome, but totally original."

Leslie Waddington, head of Britain's biggest gallery, signed up against his better judgement. The bulk of his trade is not at his London galleries but at big international fairs abroad - Paris, Madrid, Maastricht, Cologne, Basel, New York, Chicago, Miami. And Nahum's drum-banging reverberated at a time when, more than usually fed up with the Brits' refusal to buy British art, he was planning to open a big gallery in Paris.

"I had not expected to `do' anything at the fair," confesses Waddington. "But when we totted up, we found we had taken over pounds 45,000. It was not a lot compared with big international fairs, but I was flabbergasted." He sold works by Ben Nicholson, William Turnbull, John Piper, Roger Hilton and Ivon Hitchens, many to collectors who had not visited his galleries for years. The fair sold a total of over 1,000 paintings.

"I think we rediscovered a market," he says. "It is the anglicised tradition coming out of Matisse and Picasso. Look at Howard Hodgkin and Ivon Hitchens, for example, and you'll see Matisse." This year, Waddington's double stand will offer paintings by 16 artists, including last year's top sellers and others such as David Hockney and the pop artist Peter Blake.

Julian Hartnoll believes the fair's new aims will secure its future. "Once we had got the big boys in, we were in a position to eliminate the also-rans," he says. "But, unlike the annual London Contemporary Art Fair in Islington, we do not aim to be a cutting-edge fair. People know what they are going to get from us - all of it has been through the sieve of the art market and art criticism." At last year's fair he sold a Brat- by for pounds 15,000, a record for the artist. This year he will offer Bratby again and other kitchen-sink artists - Coker, Greaves, Middleditch and Smith.

Colin Gleadell, features editor of Galleries magazine, and sole survivor of the fair's original committee, says: "We'd like the fair to reflect the developing tradition of modern British art within a historical context. I would place it chronologically from Sickert to the pop art of the Sixties, but we're happy to include two or three cutting- edge galleries such as Interim Art."

Ironically, the fair's uniqueness - no other country has a fair devoted to its own modern and contemporary art - is not a prestige point. It is a sign that British modern art, despite the charm of its landscape-based evolution from Turner and Constable through St Ives, has thrown up only a handful of artists who have achieved international status. It is a home market and a sluggish one.

But Nahum, whose own collection of 250 modern British paintings, especially of the Thirties and Forties, is the envy of enthusiasts, says: "As far as I'm concerned, if you exempt world leaders - say, Picasso or the American expressionists - 20th-century British art is as good as 20th-century art anywhere.

"The British have allowed British critics and academics to put down British art. That makes me even more determined that this fair should represent it properly. I'm telling people, `If you want to have a flutter, you'll find things at this fair that will uplift your heart. We won't let you down. So trust your instincts and sod the critics.'"

At the fair, Nahum's Leicester Galleries of St James's will offer a cross- section of "modern Brits": examples of Surrealism and Symbolism (Armstrong, Burra, Collins, Pailthorpe, Tunnard) and Abstract Constructionism (Nicholson, Pasmore), together with representatives of the post-Edwardian background - the schools of Camden Town (Sickert) and Blooms-bury (Grant). There is a dash of Vorticism (Nevinson, Bomberg), and a joker in the pack, faker Tom Keating.

James Mayor, whose gallery has been associated with British Surrealism since its beginnings, believes it is big-name artists that will attract buyers to the fair. "England is probably the weakest art-collecting nation in the western world," he says. "We dealers have been banging our heads against a brick wall for some 70 years. The fair is a way of developing a clientele." In the mainly Surrealist selection on his stand will be work by the British artist-critic Roland Penrose - close associate of Picasso and a leading spokesman, with Andre Breton, of Surrealism.

Another London dealer who welcomes the changed emphasis of the fair is Adrian Mibus of Whitford Fine Art. "It needed a purge. It was getting far too `decorative', with too many pretty belle epoque-style paintings. That's just not the right spirit. I've not done the fair since 1991 but now I'm back." Among his exhibits: the pop artist Joe Tilson's Please Touch of 1970 - a frame with 12 sections, each containing a painting of a female breast with an invitingly tactile four-inch deep inflated canvas bag underneath.

! Fair opening times: 27-29 Sept (11am-8pm), 30 Sept-1 Oct (11am-7pm). Entry pounds 6, students pounds 3. Inquiries 0181-742 1611. It is held in association with the `Ind-ependent' and `Independent on Sunday'.