THE BRUSH OF MAGIC

As Christie's prepares for its biggest-ever sale of fairground art
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The Independent Culture
The Fairground artist Mark Gill's visiting card is laminated in plastic because the few remaining showmen who buy his work have dirty hands.

His father, a circus signwriter, warned Gill that they are notoriously mean. "They'll promise you the earth, but keep it under their fingernails," he told him. That, plus the advent of the paint spraycan and hard times in the travelling fair industry, explains why, at 34, Gill is the sole surviving exponent of tradition- al baroque-style fairground lettering.

But it was not always so as Christie's biggest-ever auction of fairground art shows. The Tussauds Collection is to be sold on 6 October in Wells, Somerset, where it has been on permanent display at the Wookey Hole Caves.

It will be a landmark sale, expected to raise around pounds 400,000. Half the lots, by value, including 120 carved Victorian and Edwardian animals and 70 figurative pieces, are fresh to collectors' eyes, having been stored in sheds since Lord and Lady Bangor collected them in the Sixties and Seventies for their trendy little shop, Trad, in London's Portobello Road. Now, accountants at the Tussaud Group, which bought them in 1973, have decreed that they must go.

In recent years, sheer lack of stock has depressed prices for fairground art in the English market. The last big sale of carousel animals and fairground art was two years ago, when Grierson Gower disposed of his entire sale- and-hire stock. Gower, who helped to form the Bangors' collection, is consultant the Tussauds auction. "If a collectable is not waved at people," he explains, "they forget about it and start collecting something else. Prices stagnate."

Grierson Gower, who still trades from his shop, Relic, in Camden Passage in Islington, north London, sells junior-size gallopers for pounds 700 in the rough, pounds 1,400 painted, and pounds 1,000 to pounds 2,000 or more for adult size. In the Sixties he used to pick them up for pounds 10 each and sell them to the Bangors for pounds 25. In New York - if you can bear the tribulations of packing and shipping - they can fetch up to pounds 20,000 at auction.

And the auction should boost prices over here. Now is the time for fashionable Sixties folk who paid the Bangors pounds 50 for colourful carved gallopers, as fun bits of interior decoration, to dig them out of their attics. They are now antiques. Among those buying them: re-gretful old showmen who, in the Sixties, sold carved animals and showfronts to scrap metal dealers for 7s 6d a hundredweight, to be burned for their gold leaf.

Today, Mark Gill, the only apprentice of the late Fred Fowle, most celebrated of fairground artists, adheres religiously to his teaching. "The Master", as Gill calls him, advocated no fewer than 12 applications of paint to the giant, ornate lettering that seems to zoom in three di- mensions from the hoarding-size boards of switchbacks and dodgem rides. Gill recognises as "possibly early Fred" a pair of rounding boards, painted with leopards and parrots in jungle foliage, in the catalogue. The boards measure 7ft 3in by 9ft and are estimated at pounds 3,500 to pounds 5,500 for the pair. Americans collectors, who cherish folk art more than we do, are likely to compete for them.

Another highlight of the sale is a rare stripped lion of about 1900 by Orton and Spooner. Charles Spooner, of Burton on Trent, was the most imaginative and versatile showman's carver. The saddles of his gallopers are ornate, with ripp-ling blankets, and their manes flow in clumps as if wind-blown. The lion is estimated to fetch pounds 8,000 to pounds 12,000.

For that kind of money, Gill would paint four big rides. He charged pounds 1,800 for the two weeks of 11-hour days it took him to repaint the Downhill Racer, a Fifties animal "ark" abandoned by showmen in a farmer's field and now resplendent at The Village country leisure park at Fleggburgh, near Great Yarmouth. Eight-wheel ERF fairground lorries, with showman's name and address on both sides of the cab, are a two-day turnround: pounds 180. "That's pounds 90 a day, but I'd never charge by the day - they'd want me there from first light to candle out." He used to charge pounds 60 for big wooden birthday-greeting "tickets", but has had second thoughts: they're pounds 100 from now on. He hopes theme pubs will discover him.

Showmen still revere traditional fairground art. "Old Fowle painted that up for us," they say, pointing to scratched but still gloriously luminous ribbons and scrolls. But as they wake on a Bank Holiday morning to the sound of rain beating on the roofs of their vans, they wonder whether their takings will be enough to pay for the letters to be restored and the words "Mark Gill, caretaker", to be painted with pride in the bottom right-hand corner.

"People tell me I put too much work into it," says Gill. "But I'm doing it for myself, really. When they take the finished work away, I still think it belongs to me. Fred used to say: 'It doesn't matter how many good jobs you do - when you do your first bad job they'll all be forgotten.' He was lovely to work for, a real sausage. It was like working for your grandfather. He was gentle, calm, methodical and relaxed - never lost his temper. He didn't really teach. He'd just say, 'Have a go', and 'Watch this'."

Gill has travelling blood in his veins. It makes his permanent workshop in Ashford, Middlesex, feel like a twilight world. His birth was announced in World's Fair, the trade journal of the fair and circus world, his great grandmother had a roundabout and his grandfather ran away to become a fairground "chap". Coco the clown was like a family uncle when his father worked as a signpainter for Bertram Mills circus.

It was in World's Fair that Gill, as a 13-year-old schoolboy, spotted one of Fred Fowle's advertisements and wrote offering himself as an apprentice. Gill's crumpled letter was still in Fred's jeans pocket, unanswered, when he presented himself at his workshop in Balham. The Master echoed Gill's father's warning - "You'll only scrape a living doing this, it takes too long" - but took him on anyway. Fred, a former amateur footballer, died of a heart attack in 1983, aged 69, after seeing his beloved Fulham beaten by Liverpool. Gill had to collect his belongings from the police. "I cried my eyes out," he says.

If you are very clever, you can take a magnifying glass to Gill's brushwork and discover his secrets - and Fred's. But for me, he made things easier, drawing a majestic capital M in my notebook and proceeding to annotate it with all 12 stages of painting. It is sim- ple but subtle. First, remember that the light shines, notionally, from top left to bottom right. The first stage is to "block shade" the sketched letter's shadowed underparts in silver paint - it will grin through subsequent coats, making them luminous. Let dry for 24 hours (the time-consuming bit). Paint over with amber lacquer. Then shade a portion of the amber with burnt sienna or blue glaze, gently blended off. Blue glaze on amber appears blue.

Fill in the face of the letter with silver or aluminium leaf. Another 24-hour wait. Apply amber as before. Then paint a coach-line around each letter, using a 212 inch chisel-tipped brush. This is the only bit that Gill ever sheds tears over - you have to twiddle and whisk the brush so that it brings the serifs to sharp points. "It makes your hand shake," he says.

Paint a smaller face half an inch inside the main face of the letter. Shade it and add "nadgeworthies" - the name coined in Fred's workshop for small calligraphic decorations. "It doesn't look finished without nadgeworthies."

There's more shading to come, dropped behind the letters, to enhance the 3D effect - a black dropshade (lower right, remember the direction of the light) and then a glazed "double dropshade" behind that. "You can see how much richer that makes it look."

Other tricks include trompe-l'oeil chamfered recesses using light and dark shadow corresponding to the notional direction of the light. The Master developed a sophistication of his own, known as the diminishing dropshade. That is, a dropshade with a deep perspective, making the letters appear to zoom out from a distant vanishing point. "That was where the master was clever", says Gill. "I have to think about things like that, but for him it just seemed to happen."

! The Tussauds Collection of Fairground Art sale is at Wookey Hole Caves, Wookey Hole, Wells, Somerset on Mon 6 Oct at 11am; contact Christie's on 0171 581 7611. Mark Gill, 0181 544 9382 and 0410 066 162. Relic, 0171 359 2597. The Village, 01493 369 770.

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