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Fred Fowle, Fairground Artist

7 July 2021

The fairground has always been a repository of high quality artwork. To be fair there has been some spectacularly bad examples as well which we will touch on in a later post.

In the early days the rides and stalls had ornate, gold leaf lettering, scrolls and swirls in bright colours. Modern attractions tend to be airbrushed, with more neon style colours, and there is a gradual move towards using printed vinyl wraps to allow damaged artwork to be repaired cheaply and quickly.

The Master

The first in our series of established artists is the man commonly know as ‘The Master’. Working initially for the ride manufacturer R.J. Lakin & Co, Fred learnt his trade on the companies Arks and Waltzers. His forward thinking style also earnt him the moniker futuristic Fred for his three dimensional lettering and images that were influenced by cinema posters and contemporary films. It was here he met another artist Edwin Hall, that led eventually to the creation of Hall & Fowle, long remembered as perhaps the premier decorators of their era.

3D Lettering By Fred Fowle
3D Lettering By Fred Fowle

Sadly at the start of World War II, Fred was laid off, and ended up working for a time on the railways, and a stint in the army.

Hall & Fowle

After the war, Fred formed a company with Billy Hall, his old colleague Edwin’s brother. They started in a disused tram shed in the South London neighbourhood of Balham. They made a perfect combination, with Hall taking care of the elaborate images and Fowle adding his trademark lettering and scrollwork, along with more abstract designs.

The pair quickly established themselves as ‘the’ artists in demand. Due to the seasonal nature of the fairground and the need to work mainly during the closed winter season, they worked long hours to keep pace with demand. Their work was noted for Fred’s insistence on only using the best paints, and applying multiple coats, upto 12, to ensure a high quality long lasting finish.

F.G.Fowle Ltd

1964 saw Billy Hall stepping down, and Fred Fowle continued on as F.G. Fowle Ltd. The 60’s was an exiting era for the funfair, with bigger, faster rides taking centre stage. This suited Fred, who adapted his style to the emerging psychedelia that was so in vogue. Intense, super bright colours, and innovation such as using metal leaf, overpainted by opaque flamboyant colours gave a metallic sheen to his imagery. Fierce tigers leaping, and winged god Mercury all added to the illusion of speed.

Winged Mercury Fairground Artwork
Winged Mercury Fairground Artwork

Fred not only pushed the boundaries of what was technically possible, using up to date techniques and materials. He still used his mastery of the traditional style of sweeping brushstrokes and lettering.

Those who had the pleasure of actually knowing him remember him as a polite self effacing gentleman. Who’s biggest achievement was pleasing his customers.

Sadly there is little original artwork left outside of the preservation arena. Carters Steam Fairs have some rides that have kept their original designs, but most rides would have been repainted at least a couple of times since Fred Fowle would worked on them. Trends invariably change. Most modern attractions would have airbrushed artwork, little sports the old lettered styles so prevalent at one time.

In 1983, a few weeks prior to his retiring, Fred sadly suffered a heart attack at Craven Cottage football stadium. Whilst watching his beloved Fulham play. His heartbroken wife ended up burning his collection of drawings and patterns. Ensuring they wouldn’t be used by any other artists.

Carters Octopus, With Fowle Artwork
Carters Octopus, With Fowle Artwork

Within the funfair industry Fred Fowle was, and remains a legend, outside he is little known. Probably because the art world rather snobbily looks down its nose at such things.

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