A decorative art in its own right

1. A fully-fledged decorative art

The generic term “Fairground Arts” brings together a wide range of concepts: the utilitarian, the decorative, and the naïve. Because these concepts are rather unsophisticated and fairgrounds were created for the masses, Fairground Arts are usually  categorized as Folk Art, considered by most as inferior to Fine Arts.

Yet the details, sophistication and artistic approach behind fairground arts tend to demonstrate the opposite. Showmen designed their rides and stalls using decorative and theatrical techniques and they called upon great artists to amaze the crowds.

From this perspective, Fairground Arts are a legitimate branch of Decorative Arts, displaying a unique power of attraction conveyed by decoration, adornments, and embellishments that  entice and bewitch.

Fairground arts were influenced by all artistic movements, yet found originality by transposing and mixing styles: antique, neo-classical, baroque, romantic, symbolism, realism… Through this combination of worldly and local traditions, Fairground Arts put a new twist on traditional artistic styles with a unique form of playfulness. The dazzling result was used by showmen to create an extravagant and baroque atmosphere that also relied on a flamboyant, luxurious, subtly libertarian and explicitly nostalgic imagination.

2. The Fairground architecture

The frequent assembly and disassembly of fairground attractions required a specific architectural design involving lightweight materials, sturdiness and simplicity of assembly. These three principles can apply for all types of fairground stalls, booths, merry-go-rounds and rides.

Aiming to accomplish these three goals, the carpenters, carvers, metalworkers, mechanics and painters  that created fairground pieces had to work closely together to hide the structural and engineering components from to the public.

The result was very unique and baroque, mixing decorations, techniques (carving, molding, painting) and materials.

Fairground architecture is highly inspired by classical themes and styles, revealing the artists’ awareness that they were contributing to a monumental art form.

3. Wood carving

Wood carving played a central role within the fairground arts. The amount of carving and the depth it creates enhanced many aspects of the trompe-l’oeil architecture. The undeniable quality of wood carving on merry-go-rounds and fair booths  is one of the most recognized elements of fairground arts.

Sculptures on fairground rides and attractions are always symbolic, with more or less realistic depictions of animal and human figures inspired by reality, myths or imagination.

Traditionally these wooden sculptures were hollow and made out of softwood, in order to facilitate their handling and transportation. They often featured polychromy, gilding, and glassware ornaments to enhance their decorative, baroque aspect.

4. Bas Relief

Wooden bas-reliefs were used to transition between the three dimensional sculptures and flat painted surfaces.

This carving technique was used to decorate façades and swifts, encircling painted medallions and mirrors. Similar to sculptures, the friezes, scrollwork, foliage and rocaille ornaments of these bas reliefs were enhanced with polychrome paintings and gold leaves.

The presence of bas-relief on all architectural features contributed to the well-known artistic aesthetic of Fairground Arts.

Similar patterns were often repeated to accentuate the visual rotation of merrry-go-rounds, for example, the twisted brass poles that each subject was placed on.

5. Painting

Painted decorations are a traditional features of fairground roundabouts, rides and booths.

Fairground painters decorated the ceilings, rounding boards, center pieces, façades, canvases, wooden and metal surfaces with beautiful images.

The painting technique used by artists at that time is similar to wall painting: flat smooth layers, simple and refined designs and more vivid colors instead of traditional pastel tones.

The themes of the paintings generally included allegories (wealth, abundance, seasons), mythological figures (gods, angels), exotic landscapes, or pastoral sceneries.

Painters worked in workshops or directly on fairgrounds to create new designs or touch up existing painted decorations. When creating a new painting, artists generally painted over the existing decorations. Therefore, when one looks at a single panel from a fairground work, it is common to see multiple layers of paint from many different times, fairs and artists.

6. Artistic schools and styles

Fairground sculptors were highly skilled and talented. The precision of their carving demonstrated their personal style and there are many other characteristicsthat allow collectors to distinguish the carvings of various artistic schools specific to fairground arts : the French school, the German school, the Belgian school and the British school.

a. The French school

When it comes to fairground arts, the French school is based on the style of the Angers-based wood-carver Gustave Bayol. It features highly realistic animal depictions with well-balanced lines in a generally classical style. The realism is also conveyed by the simplicity of carousel figures’ ornaments. For example, French horses generally have simple halters and flat saddles.

French merry-go-rounds are traditionally designed around a theme with decorations to match, and they usually feature only one type of animal : cows, pigs, cats or even herring roundabouts were common during the Belle Epoque.

The French fairground architecture is defined by strict classical rules, repetitive patterns, and an overall considerable attention to details.

b. The German school

Similarly to the French school, the German school is charactarized by the depiction of animal figures, Freidrich Heyn being one of the major artists. Animals featured on merry-go-rounds – horses, cows, exotic lions and giraffes – have a certain dignity with highly elaborated ornaments, enhanced with bronze or gold rosettes and vivid paintwork. Unlike the French realistic and simple designs, the German school stresses the ornamental aspect. Both schools demonstrate a shared attention to anatomical precision, including visible muscle structure on German horses.

In contrast to the French school, the German bas-reliefs are more stylized and architectural elements present less depth and details.

c. The Belgian school

Similar to the style of Gustave Bayol in France, the Belgian school was greatly influenced by one of the most important 19th century fairground carvers: Alexandre Devos.

His style was based on Flemish, baroque culture with references to antiquity, and his most famous works were his monumental statues. From the 1890’s onward, his outstanding allegorical designs were the highlight of Salons Carousels façades.

Other sculptors following Devos’ style such as Jules Moulinas were also influenced by Fine Arts and incorporated Art Nouveau elements to this baroque profusion.

The evolution of carousel figures is a common pattern with Belgian and French carvers. In the 1940’s Van Guyse in Belgium and Henri Devos (son of Alexandre) in France both started designing cartoon-inspired figures for adults and children.

d. The British school

The British style differs from other European schools in their more advanced stylization of patterns and outstanding graphic design. Fairground artists and makers are also great inventors : Savage designed the first steam-powered mechanical roundabouts in the 1850’s; Orton & Spooner created the first merry-go-round full of centaurs, depicting famous politician from the 1900s ; Anderson invented extremely large figures, contributing to the development  of the British style.

Starting in 1925, the British fairground artists – famous for their stylized patterns – adapted the trendy Art Déco to fit into the Fairground Arts. As a consequence, the three dimensional sculptures and embossed designs were gradually replaced by ornaments inspired by graphic art.


Published on 09.01.17