The tension starts to rise a week or so before any fair. No matter how often I exhibit I never can be completely blithe about the process. Back in my Mallett days there were people buzzing around making preparations but now it is all down to me. It begins with a piece of paper and a ruler. I measure out my stand and start imagining the 'mise en scene'; this takes a while, with quite some crossing out and redrawing, but from this skeleton all else follows. The plotting triggers everything including the nervous anticipation of both problems and triumphs. There is always the dream that someone will come on to the stand and buy everything, a fantasy balanced by a nightmare where everything is unsold, damaged and derided. Neither has yet come to pass.
The dark art of planning a stand. (image writer's own)
My current focus is the Olympia Art and Antiques fair which opens ominously on the night of Halloween. I am not going to wear a comedic spooky outfit nor will I bedeck my stand with cobwebs and pumpkins - when most people see my modest prices they are scared enough. There are countless UK and international fairs from September through to December - the Autumn season is packed but as a rough guide the season starts with the Biennnale in Paris and ends with Winter Olympia. This fair strives to mop up the last of the year's buyers before they run off and hunker down to celebrate Christmas. It offers for the most part items of modest value and whilst there is a larding of six-figure pieces - even the occasional seven-figure - the majority will be four and five. That does not mean the stuff is only decorative, it just means that it is modest. The quirky and the imaginative is what is on offer and that can be excellent and exquisite in execution.
The fair comes at a difficult time in London because Brexit has triggered a large drop in the value of sterling, and whilst the devaluation creates an opportunity for buyers - providing what appears to be an inbuilt discount - it increases people's sense of nervousness and insecurity. That mood is as discouraging as the reduced price of the items is tempting. In addition many of the buyers at UK Fairs are Europeans and Americans who have moved here for work and their future status is now uncertain. This dissuades them from furnishing in an indulgent way. So within this brittle market Woodham-Smith Ltd and confreres are trying to make a show which will both be commercial and entertaining. To this end we focus on the classic methodologies. We gather fresh things, we show practical pieces with an edge of originality and glamour and we keep our prices down. Invitations will be sent out and good clients personally encouraged to attend. It is a lottery to which we all buy far too many tickets in the hope that one might come good.
I am getting ready. I have my plan but now I must make a really hard decision. Do I take my wine fridge or not? It is a great boon and comfort to have chilled white wine ready at all times but it is possibly a distraction to spend more time plotting my evening libation than focussing on the customers. Also the fridge itself is no enhancement to the beauty of the stand. Though I am pleased with my 70s revival glasses. It will probably go.
I walked today through Battersea Park with my friend Arthur Millner, an expert in Indian and Islamic art. He is not an exhibitor but he is giving a lecture at the fair. He was fretting too, he is worried that he has not done enough work in preparation and consequently he is going the shut himself away for the next week to get ready. Nearly all fairs have a lecture programme and an exhibition to enhance the visitors experience. I am uncertain how much potential buyers want to attend lectures but it does make the fair more rounded and organisers want to encourage visitors not just buyers. Although I know his lecture will be excellent, Arthur's nervousness is infectious and back at home I spend a careful afternoon checking up on my preparations.
At Hatfields, the restorers, they are completing the finishing touches to the items coming to the fair. Richard, the foreman and manager tries not to let his face fall as I bowl in on an almost daily basis asking for the impossible. They say a watched pot never boils and that seems to apply to restoration: if you hang over the shoulder of a craftsman they rebel and down tools - you have to encourage and cajole them like getting a timid cat to come out from under a cupboard.
Will they be ready on time? (Image writer's own)
In addition, upholsterers and polishers should not consider going away on holiday for a fortnight before a fair - certainly they should not be allowed to. I ring my shippers for the umpteenth time encouraging them urgently to deliver my foreign purchases in time to get them ready. As the fair approaches so does the sense that everything needs to be done at once, preferably yesterday. I can comfort myself with the feeling that I am not alone, similar calls are being made by dealers throughout the land.
Then comes the computer and the printer wrestling match. Like many dealers I print my descriptions onto sticky labels and then fix those onto string labels. The devils who design the software for label printing at Avery must chortle with delight knowing the exquisite torture they put us through. The box provided for the words never quite lines up with the label that comes out of the printer. It all ends up being a pile of errors dumped into the paper recycling and yours truly ragged and wretched accepting imperfection and scribbling hand-written corrections onto the labels in an unforgivably scruffy way. It is a battle I fight and lose before every fair.
The penultimate battle is the one fought getting the treasures onto the stand and looking good. The carriers arrive and with a requisite amount of complaint and groaning the van is loaded up. The traffic stiffens and, cursing the delays, they arrive to do battle with the fair organisers security. Unlike prison guards who want to keep their inmates in, their struggle is to keep everyone out. If you get your goods to your stand without weeping or cursing their day is clouded. What follows is a sweaty few hours battling with wobbly walls and equally wobbly ladders. Screws fall out, nails bend, pictures hang skew whiff and the furniture tips in unseemly ways due to the uneven floor. In the end it all looks as good as it can and you head home in order to prepare emotionally for the descent of the fair's vetting team next day.
Like blood hounds following a scent the vetters sniff round the fair in pursuit of errors. They rootle about seeking imperfection and deception and debate how best to correct it. Will a change of wording do the trick or does the offending item have to be ejected from the fair? It is a necessary pain, as mistakes can be made and it is best to do what you can to protect the unwitting public.
And then it's done. You dust, wipe and move an object slightly to the left. The rest is up to the random delighted guest who falls so in love with an object that they have to take it home. Roll on the 31st October.