21st Century Gothic

13th January 2017

The annual Winter Decorative Antiques Fair in Battersea Park has a Gothic element this year, and for the first time will also house the London Antique Rug and Textile Art Fair. Jack Watkins sets the scene…

A crisp walk by the river at Battersea Park in the winter months will always get the thumbs up from me, if only to say hello to the herons and take a few deep, meditative breaths by the Peace Pagoda. I’d never visited the Winter Decorative Antiques & Textiles Fair until last year, however, and was in for a pleasant surprise. Held in the Evolution Marquee, just off the Central Avenue, this is a surprisingly friendly event, which offers an excellent casual introduction to its subject while also appealing to a more regular, knowledgeable clientele.

The number of exhibitors taking part numbered around 145, and they had come from far and wide, not just London’s West End. You are free to look and nobody will bother you. On the other hand, they will willingly engage with your questions. One dealer, with a base in Gloucestershire, spent time talking to me about Arts and Crafts design, and I wandered into another stall which had a beautiful collection of horse paintings. Some exhibitors seemed to specialise in French rococo interiors; others were strictly 21st century. There were antique dealers specialising in late 19th century mahogany, and more eclectic souls who seemed to be into everything from London Underground signs to unusual decorative objects like fossils or vintage toys. One stall had a display of stylish early 20th century vintage poster art.

Essentially, the show (which sometimes, just for simplicity’s sake, is also called ‘The Battersea Fair’) caters for anyone interested in furniture, lighting, glassware and ceramics, fine and vintage couture jewellery, and textiles and art of every kind, including traditional, folk and contemporary.

“The fair has grown enormously since it was first held in 1985,” says Pippa Roberts, who is in charge of publicity and communications. “It was the first of its kind to attempt bring together the antiques and interior design trades under one roof. From being once yearly, we now have a Spring Fair in April and an Autumn Fair in late September, as well as the Winter Fair.” You can find 21st century art and sculpture at the fair, but it is the only thing that is allowed to be ‘up to the present day’. All other items are pre-1970, “unless of exceptional design merit, or a one-off.”

Most of the pieces on display are by known or sought-after makers, factories or artists, or have a unique curiosity value. In addition to this, as far as the value of the Winter Fair for the antiques and interior design trades is concerned, Pippa says: “Many decorators start work on new projects in early autumn, when they are keen to place ‘the bones’ of a design scheme, larger items of furniture or cabinetry. By January, they are looking to find accessories such as mirrors, occasional chairs, side tables, textiles and rugs. The Winter Fair offers them the chance to choose from an extensive and varied selection.”

When it comes to the public, the fair also attracts private clients who fancy giving themselves a treat after the Christmas and New Year break. “We often see big sales of art, glassware and ceramics, and quite glitzy furniture such as mid-20th century polished metal and glass coffee tables, mirrors and lighting – items that help bring a little sparkle to the home in the gloomy winter months.”

Each fair also has a themed foyer exhibition. Lined up for this winter’s event is a 21st century interpretation of Gothic design. These days we tend to assume that ‘Gothic’ is dark and sombre, even menacing, associating it with Goth fashion and rock music of the 1980s, or with the heavy architectural stylings of Victorian neo-Gothic. We forget that, as Pippa says, “Gothic as a style originated as light, delicate and highly decorated grandeur,” enabling it to be reworked by modern designers in today’s interiors.

Two important anniversaries are the pegs upon which the foyer display hangs. Jane Austen’s ‘Gothic’ novel Northanger Abbey was published 200 years ago in January 1817, but, perhaps more significantly, this year is also the 300th anniversary of the birth in 1717 of one of the stylistic pioneers of Gothic, or ‘Gothick’: Horace Walpole. Not only is his Castle of Otranto credited as being the first Gothic thriller, but his home in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill House, was one of the finest examples of Gothic at its daintiest and most theatrical. This wasn’t the scholarly, windy Gothic of Pugin, who came along a century later and took great care to study its medieval origins, but a style deployed as a kind of rich man’s fairy tale plaything, using papier-mâché and plaster painted to look like ancient stone, for instance.

The 21st century Gothic foyer display at Battersea will feature period examples of Gothic design refreshed by modern styling, including carved and decorated furniture, mirrors and architectural elements, diffused with select 20th century pieces and even a dash of steampunk and elaborate patterning to create a dramatic contemporary spirit. Explains Pippa: “We aim to show how Gothic design of any period, including mid-Georgian, when Walpole at Strawberry Hill helped start the fashion for a revival of the style, can be incorporated into a modern interior. We hope to make the display feel as light and airy as possible, incorporating Arts and Crafts light oak furniture, painted garden pieces, gilded lights, and a few choice pieces of earlier Gothic, such as cabinets and centre tables.” There will be some pieces in darker moods, such as the classic Victorian hall chairs in the Gothic style which are still popular today. But they’ll also put in some more modern pieces to break up the look, and make it relevant to today’s tastes.

Another interesting new element in this year’s Winter Fair is the housing, for the first time, of the London Antique Rug and Textile Fair (LARTA), which will reside in the mezzanine area of the hall. This will mean fifteen expert dealers specialising in period carpets, tapestries, textiles and tribal weavings, along with associated works of art, will be given ample space. LARTA, the only event of its kind in Europe, was launched five years ago to create a forum promoting the appreciation of antique rugs and textiles by the general public. “It’s an entirely separate event to the Fair, but it complements the content visitors will find on the ground floor with the Decorative Fair dealers, and it will be an exciting and added attraction for the decorators too,” says Pippa.
With a selection of rugs, carpets, textiles and tribal weavings from Persia, India, China, Anatolia and the Caucasus, as well as from Africa and within Europe, it can only add to the allure of a post-festive season trip to Battersea.

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