History by Colin Gleadell


Thirty years ago this month a new fair burst upon the London art scene, and it says something about the sustained strength and depth of the market it represented that it is still with us today.


The 20th Century British Art Fair was conceived at a time when Modern British art – art that was made in the spirit of international developments in modern art from Impressionism to Pop art – was enjoying a wave of interest in museums, commercial galleries and in the salerooms. Standout exhibitions were ‘St. Ives, 1939-1964’ curated by David Brown at the Tate in 1984,  and The Royal Academy’s ‘British Art in the 20th Century - The Modern Movement’, in 1987, which looked at British art from radical Vorticism to Gilbert & George.


Not only did the show promote artists like Edward Burra and William Roberts, who had not previously been given sufficient prominence, but it led to renewed efforts by dealers to explore the vast unknown territory of Modern British art beyond the familiar figures of Walter Sickert, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Stanley Spencer and Francis Bacon.


One of the main new players was the Austin/Desmond gallery which staged regular ‘Aspects of Modern British Art’ exhibitions from 1984 in the horse stables by William Desmond’s house in Ascot. These were far-reaching catalogues that provided information about artists in print that was not easily available elsewhere. John Austin recalls how, in those days, “we could buy whatever we wanted. It was a dealer’s market.” Paintings by William Scott, Patrick Heron and Roger Hilton, now worth over £100,000, could be bought for under £2,000. It was Desmond who, in 1988, had the idea of starting an art fair specifically for Modern British art which was staged initially in the basement of the Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch.


The fair itself was owned by Ivan Winstone, Heather McConnell and Gay Hutson with Angela (Bunny) Wynn as organising secretary.  After McConnell died in 1993 and, following the recession of the early 90s, Hutson and Wynn took over the reins in 1995 until this year when it was bought by the Sandelson brothers with Hutson in the role of British Art Fair maven.


One of the founding concepts of the fair has always been to recognise the dealers’ part, not just in the art market, but in discovering and re- evaluating British art of the 20th century. Two of the most memorable shows at Austin/Desmond in the late ‘80s were for Keith Vaughan and Terry Frost, both of whom were creeping up the price ladder from a barely noticeable £600 pre 1986 to nearer £10,000 at auction.


Putting the Newlyn School and the so-called British Impressionists on the map was Buckinghamshire dealer, David Messum. Messum enlisted the support of art historian Kenneth McConkey whose 1989 book on British Impressionism served as a hand guide for collectors interested in the territory.


Richard Green, perhaps the most powerful dealer in pre-contemporary British art, was also an enthusiast for these works, joining the fair in 2002. By the end of the decade he had pulled back from the Victorian art market and instead, devoted his new gallery in New Bond Street to modern art.


Leslie Waddington (whose former director, Tom Lighton, exhibits as Merville Galleries at this year’s fair) was also a key player representing a hard core of post-war British avant garde artists such as Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton and Ivon Hitchens. But by the late ‘90s he had passed on many of his artists’ estates to Jonathan Clark, who this year continues the good work by presenting a solo exhibition at the fair of works by Hitchens from the estate.


In the late ‘80s, it was Bernard Jacobson who was the most bullish dealer in Modern British art, and, as a shareholder in the new and influential art magazine, Modern Painters, ensured that spiritually powerful British art was read about and collected. A classic example is the Vorticist-turned-Expressionist painter, David Bomberg, who was the subject of a major biography by Richard Cork in 1987 and a Tate retrospective in 1988. The dovetailing of academia, public museum and market was completed by exhibitions at Jacobson’s gallery as well as at Gillian Jason’s and Fischer Fine Art. There was no escaping the impact as Bomberg’s auction price record soared from £16,000 in 1986 to £95,000 in 1989. However, the savage recession of 1991 effectively put the brakes on this market for the next ten years.

From a purely statistical perspective, a key moment was in the 2010/11 season, when designated sales of Modern British art at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams (excluding the higher value British art sold in international Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art sales) reached £90 million in one year, exceeding comparable totals for Russian, American and Latin American art sales. It was, however, boosted by the exceptional record £41.4 million Evill/Frost collection sale at Sotheby’s, and annual totals subsequently fell back – until the 2017/18 season, when that figure was surpassed and Christie’s achieved a record £32.7 million for a single, mixed owner sale of Modern British art.

The salerooms have undoubtedly played an increasing role in selling direct to private clients and in promoting prices publicly. But the degree of success would not have been possible without the groundbreaking work of commercial galleries and the blossoming network of museums. Apart from Tate Britain and its outreaches in St. Ives and Liverpool, and the lively exhibition programmes of museums from Southampton to Edinburgh, the list of institutions supporting Modern British art has been growing. To old established provincial venues like Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, or the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Cumbria we can add some of the liveliest venues such as Pallant House Gallery in Sussex and The Hepworth Wakefield in Yorkshire. The effect of museum shows on the market is hard to pin down, but perhaps it is more than a coincidence that in the run up to, during and just after the Pallant House centenary exhibition for John Minton in 2017, records were tumbling for the artist at auction.


With the revival of the market came added competition for Modern British art as an art fair component. From the Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, to the London Art Fair in Islington, Art London in Chelsea, and more recently, LAPADA, Masterpiece London and Frieze Masters, rival fair organisers have sought out Modern British art dealers to add to their mix. But 20/21, which is renamed the British Art Fair and is taking place this month, remains the only fair devoted solely to Modern British art. In moving to the Saatchi Gallery it heeds the advice given by Sir Nicholas Serota when he opened the fair in 1997, commenting that, while the concept was excellent, the space at the Royal College of Art was ‘a bit cramped.’


Interestingly, its relocation to the Saatchi gallery reminds us that the great show-stopper of the 90s, Saatchi’s ‘Sensation’ exhibition at the Royal Academy, is now deeply engrained in history. How long will it be, asks new fair director Robert Sandelson, before these artists – Gormley, Hirst, Emin et al., - will be part of the Modern British canon and featuring in the British Art Fair? Judging by the catalogue in which Michael-Craig Martin, the godfather of the YBA’s, is one of the most visible artists at this year’s fair, the answer is ‘soon’.


In addition to the previously mentioned Ivon Hitchens exhibition, there are three more exhibitions within the fair that add a curatorial dimension which was missing from previous fairs. Works by Alfred Wallis, the self-taught Cornish fisherman who became integral to the development of British art in the 1930s, and Roger Hilton, a later resident of St.Ives, all from the collection of the late Australian art dealer, Ray Hughes, are to be shown by The Mayor Gallery. A collaboration between several dealers and Paintings in Hospitals (the charity which the fair supports) has resulted in an exhibition of works by Bridget Riley, one of the most internationally renowned living British artists whose auction record stands at £4.3 million (With reference to the role of provincial galleries it is perhaps worth remembering how it was an exhibition at Abbot Hall in 1998 that lead to her triumph at the Serpentine Gallery, record prices and international representation by major galleries over the following 20 years).


The third, and largest, exhibition sees the first pairing of two old friends, the renowned abstract sculptor, Sir Anthony Caro, and the eminent art historian and abstract painter, John Golding, which has been curated by the Piano Nobile Gallery. It is a perfect example of how a dealer can open eyes to an artist’s work, in this case John Golding, whose estate they represent.