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Celebrating British modern art for 25 years

— October 2012

Associated media

A.N. Wilson opening the 25th 20/21 British Art Fair

Rosalind Ormiston visited this year's British Art Fair, now in its 25th year

The 20/21 British Art Fair held annually in September at the Royal College of Art (RCA), London, celebrated its 25th anniversary this year with a flourish. Over the five-day period (12–16 September) the Fair was attended by thousands of prospective buyers focused on purchasing the works of British artists. Altogether, 56 art dealers offered paintings, prints and sculpture for sale, in modern (1900–45), post-war (1945–70), and contemporary (1970–2012), categories of work.

At the Fair, displayed over two floors, I spoke to dealers from some of the 12 companies that were present at the first Fair in 1988 – when it was called the 20th Century Art Fair and held at the Cumberland Hotel at Marble Arch, London. They spoke of the enthusiasm and professionalism of its founders Gay Hutson and Angela ‘Bunny’ Wynn, who are, as every person I spoke to professed, the reason why the Fair continues to be successful. Through Hutson and Wynn’s ‘hands-on’ involvement it remains a pivotal date in the art year’s calendar. In addition, the consensus of opinion from dealers is that the 20/21BAF owes its success to its being an exhibition of solely British Art that reaches an audience interested in the rich diversity of British works on sale, with prices from a few hundred pounds to many thousands.

Hutson and Wynn, both present and warmly greeting dealers, friends and visitors, were disarmingly reticent about their achievement, leaving it to their clients, the art dealers, to explain their 25-year success.

On the first afternoon the 20/21 BAF atmosphere was that of many friends gathering at a reunion; a lively crush of people mingled closely with dealers, to catch up with each other, and to study the art. The annual event attracts a range of people from first-time buyers to dedicated collectors, in addition to British art curators from international, national and regional art galleries. Dealers expect to see their regular clients at the BAF and to find new clients during the event. Every year it is opened officially; in 1988 it was by George Melly; this year it was biographer, historian and novelist A.N. Wilson who gave the speech, highlighting his personal connection to the RCA, and the continuing achievements of the Fair.

The RCA has hosted the Fair since 1991. For some dealers, such as the prestigious Agnews, now in their 20th year at the BAF, the RCA space is smaller than they would like. They want to offer more works to buyers and prefer the location of the Commonwealth Institute, when the Fair did briefly exhibit in the past. Agnews’ displayed around 25 artists’ works, including those of John Tunnard, Alan Davie, Elisabeth Frink and Augustus John.

For many exhibitors, such as Lucy Johnson, an antiques and art dealer with 20 years experience, now in her fifth year at BAF, however, the space allocation on the lower ground floor is fine. Johnson explained her reasons for returning each year, ‘This fair has an informed footfall of collectors and enthusiasts so it’s a niche Fair... a gathering place of specialists in British’s a joy to be here because it is so well organized...’ She showed an extraordinary group of works,  including some by artists Henry Moore, Lucy Rie, Keith Vaughan, Barry Flanagan and Graham Sutherland. Her gallery, located in Plantation Wharf, London SW11, combines antique furniture with contemporary art and attracts a loyal following of serious collectors.

Sally Hunter and Nicola Blaxall (Sally Hunter Fine Art Gallery, London W11), also on the lower ground floor, were pleased with the central RCA location. Now in their fifth year at 20/21 BAF, Hunter finds it reaches the right clients, ‘It’s the ideal Fair for us’. Specializing in modern British paintings and works on paper, she was selling works by Elsie Henderson, Stephen Crowther, David Carr and Mary Godwin amongst others. Around the corner there was a different kind of buzz emanating from Dominic Guerrini’s vivid display of signed prints, featuring works by Tracey Emin, Lucian Freud, Howard Hodgkin, Bridget Riley, and Banksy, to name only a few. The gallery (Dominic Guerrini Fine Art, London SW3), sells art by popular artists at affordable prices. Guerrini, now in his 10th year at BAF, was warmly greeted by many clients who engaged him in conversation. For him the BAF is a successful venture. He says he came into it ten years ago to make money and sees it as the only Fair that champions British modern art.

Upstairs on the ground floor, in the central hub where Agnews, Beaux Art, Gimpel Fils, and the Boundary Gallery rubbed shoulders, was The Scottish Gallery. This sells only Scottish artists’ works and was established in 1842 in Edinburgh to sell contemporary art. It is known to specialize in art by the Scottish Colourists. Now in its 25th year at the 20/21BAF, The Scottish Gallery displayed a variety of stunning works, such as Sir William Gillies (1898–1973) Harbour, Anstruther, date unknown (£12,000) and Overhanging Branches II Mellerstain, 2012 (£1,950) by Calum McClure (b.1987).

By contrast, Henry Boxer’s stand, situated in a wide corridor off the main entrance, exhibited a rare group of works by a long-forgotten painter, Stuart Hodkinson, who disappeared from public view – through ill-health – after his one-man show at the Serpentine Gallery, London in 1979. Boxer, a specialist in 20th-century Outsider and Visionary art (Henry Boxer Gallery, Richmond, Surrey), aims to revive the artist’s name; a Tyne & Wear show of his work is planned for 2014. On show here amongst other artists represented by Boxer were the distinctive nature artworks of Roy Wright, who was also present.

Boxer  discussed the growing trend for dealers to abandon their galleries to sell online. It is an interesting challenge, freeing up the need for galleries large and small to have a permanent location, thus allowing dealers’ revenue to be invested in British art and available to a worldwide audience via the Internet.

The next 20/21 British Art Fair at the Royal College of Art, London, runs from 11–15 September 2013.


Rosalind Ormiston
Independent art historian

Media credit: Courtesy British Art Fair

Editor's notes

The 2012 ‘20/21 British Art Fair’ was held at Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU from 12–16 September. The next one will be at the same venue 11–15 September 2013.

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