This year's opens on Wednesday at the Royal College of Art. It is a little bigger than in the past and, in common with the mood of the times, includes more galleries exhibiting younger contemporary work. But the strength of the show still comes from the dealers in Modern British art, an odd term used to define work from around 1890 to - well, to some time quite recently, although no one ever seems quite sure where the dateline is.
It is appropriate then that this year's loan exhibition of 19 paintings from the Barclays Bank collection concentrates on British painting 1910- 1945. I'm not too sure about the logic of this kind of exhibition in this kind of place. Sure, there are some very good pictures and it's always good to see things that are kept behind closed doors; but one of the surprising strengths of the Barclays collection is that many of the works are quiet ones that need a little time. There's an emphasis on figurative, painterly work, but also on the sort of subtlety which may get a little lost in the maelstrom of a busy fair.
Such reservations aside, it's a fine selection. The 19 pictures on show (a fraction of those in Barclays' Lombard Street headquarters) have been chosen to hang together as a self-contained exhibition and give a glimpse of what the collection is about. It began, like the bank, in the late 17th century with a portrait of the founder Richard Smythe, and has grown rather like a private collection, with pictures inherited from here and there and the occasional unstructured shopping spree. Since 1991, however, the chairman, Andrew Buxton, has sought to give the collection a Modern British focus and, with advice from the Tate Gallery's Caroline Cuthbert, he has begun to assemble an enviable group of pictures. Among the best to be seen at the RCA are William Nicholson's Snow in La Rochelle, a gentle mix of whites and greys and greens; an early soft-toned Ivon Hitchens, similarly subtle, but with flashes of bright colour; a shimmering blue Sickert of Hilda Glyda on stage; and a wonderful Patrick Heron of black grapes and white roses, painted in 1946 before he turned to abstraction.
Buxton fixes the budget each autumn, aiming to spend something like pounds 50,000 to buy two or three pictures of what he describes as "exhibition quality". If something really special comes up there's a little more flexibility. Their most recent acquisition, for example, a 1935 painting of Ronda by David Bomberg, set them back pounds 60,000 at auction earlier this year, taking the 1997 budget over pounds 100,000.
Whether Barclays will add to this at the fair remains to be seen, but there should be things to tempt them, or anyone thinking of starting or adding to a serious collection of 20th-century British pictures. One or two artists always seem to be flavour of the month - in 1996 William Scott's work cropped up on a dozen different stands and this year he's much in evidence again. The best of them, for my money, is Reclining Nude from 1942 at Austin Desmond Fine Art (pounds 38,000). 1997's other favourite looks like being Bomberg, prompted perhaps by the big price paid by Barclays earlier this year. Again Austin Desmond have a good one of St Paul's painted in 1937 and Agnews have a later, very gutsy view of Ronda - either will set you back around pounds 45,000.
On a more modest note there are some good prints and drawings for less than pounds 1,000. I recommend Marlborough Graphics for recent work by Victor Pasmore, Paula Rego and RB Kitaj; Timothy Taylor for prints by Sean Scully; or Paul Liss for enchanting drawings by Winifred Knights, Tom Monnington and other artists associated with the British School at Rome. At just over pounds 1,000 Anthony Hepworth has some small neo-Romantic paintings on paper by John Bridgeman; he's better known as a sculptor, but these pictures from the 1940s are worth seeking out. Caroline Wiseman has great prints by Howard Hodgkin from pounds 1,000-pounds 3,000 and a few tiny new paintings by the excellent Craigie Aitchison starting at around pounds 3,000. In the next bracket up, pounds 5,000 could buy you a wonderful carved head by George Kennethson from Rosanna Wilson Stephens, while pounds 10,000 would stretch to a good painting by Roger Hilton from Anthony Hepworth - for just a little bit more you could take home Grey Shore (1950), the best of a good group of work by Keith Vaughan.
At the pounds 15,000 mark, you start to find things Barclays might make space for: a visually cheery but surprisingly subtle painting by Mary Newcombe from Crane Kalman perhaps, or work by Paul Maitland or Eric Ravilious at The Fine Art Society. Not surprisingly pounds 50,000 goes even further, although it would still only buy one of the terrific early paintings by John Piper at Jonathan Clark's stand, or two-thirds of Howard Hodgkin's 1969 RBK at Timothy Taylor's. If money's no object there's a classic geometric abstraction at Waddington Galleries and a fabulous firework picture at The Fine Art Society - both by Ben Nicholson, both in excess of pounds 100,000. Happy shopping.
The 20th Century British Art Fair, sponsored by the Independent on Sunday, is at the Royal College of Art, London SW7, from 24-28 Sept, Wed-Fri 11-8, Sat and Sun 11-7. Admission pounds 7, concs pounds 3.50. For further information, call 0181 742 1611