1881 - Travelling Fair
In country districts especially, most people could not travel very far from home and so their entertainment would generally come to them. Travelling menageries were a popular feature of many fairs and one of the best known was that operated by Bostock and Wombwell. It toured Britain until 1931, bringing an incredulous public a glimpse of such exotic creatures as a hippopotamus, lion, tiger, porcupine and boa constrictor. The menagerie had its own portable arena that was transported in wagons and erected on site. What are the main decorative features of 'fairground art’?
The Bostock and Wombwell menagerie was entirely transportable and, despite its size, could be dismantled and packed away in a few hours. For many years the elephants shared the job of hauling it from place to place with heavy horses. Once the site of the next performance was reached, the 'beast wagons' and living quarters would be parked up nose to tail to form three sides of the rectangular enclosure where the show would be held. The fourth side was the show front that would be assembled to form the pay box, entrance and an area where the menagerie's own band played. The arena would then be covered by a canvas roof supported on ridge poles. As a portable or temporary building it made an ingenious and extremely practical alternative to the more familiar 'big top'. Bostock and Wombwell used a number of show fronts over the years and the one in the illustration was built by George Orton of Burton-upon-Trent in 1883. Decoration and lettering were in the traditional fairground style, and the fanciful paintings of savage beasts and other enticements to the intending customer would have been executed by one of the firms that specialised in such work, such as Rompeay of Bristol or Tollson's of Bradford. Like the richly varied styles of painting found on canal boats, fairground decoration is a true folk art, a visual language that has been handed down from one generation of painters to the next. Aesthetically it is a complex equation, a synthesis of tradition, the owner's taste, the characteristics of the structure and the individual whim of the painter. Its origins are inevitably diverse, a freewheeling mixture of kitsch, traditional Romany styles, Victorian signwriting, rock 'n' roll graphics and honest do-it-yourself improvisation. Brash, colourful and direct, the style survives - albeit in diluted form - on today's super twisters and atomic waltzers. At any fair, whatever its size, customers can see styles of signwriting and decoration that are not encountered anywhere else.
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