From Carousel Dreams to Auction Thrills

From Carousel Dreams to Auction Thrills

Inside John Barker's Enchanting Collection

John Barker’s passion for fairground horses, carvings and wagons started at a very young age, inspired by his grandfather who was well connected in the world of fairground operations. After the success of selling a small portion of his collection in 2018, Sworders are in position and ready to offer the remainder in a designated sale in spring 2024 - giddy up!

5 February 2024

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We sat down with John to learn more about the fantastical world of this specialised collecting area, and find out what will be included in this upcoming sale…

 

An extremely rare juvenile elephant carousel mount by C J Spooner c.1890, the outside row figure standing in an animated pose (£7,000-9,000)

An extremely rare juvenile elephant carousel mount by C J Spooner c.1890, the outside row figure standing in an animated pose (£7,000-9,000)

 

What made you start collecting?

 

As a child, I could not pass a funfair without begging my father to stop, as the colours, lights and sounds fascinated me, so really, I suppose, it was just in my blood.

The very first horse I bought was at the age of fourteen when I had just left school and started work. It was in the window of an antique shop in Cookham, which I found out was owned by the daughter of Billy Smart, and the horse was a C J Spooner outside-row double-seater from the family’s set of gallopers.

From then on, I wanted to find the very finest Fairground Art pieces I could find, wherever they were in the world. Probably 80% of my collection has been acquired from the USA, where the very best pieces were exported from the 1960s to the 1990s. Unfortunately, getting these pieces shipped back to the UK was very costly, very time-consuming, and sometimes, very frustrating.

 

What is the rarest fairground item in your collection?

 

I think the rarest piece in my collection is the Spooner carved centaur torso of Joseph Chamberlain, which was, apparently, the first centaur carved by the firm in 1900 as reported in the Daily Mail at the time, and made its first appearance at the Neath Fair. Chamberlain did not prove popular as riders preferred the Generals of Boer War fame, such as Roberts, Kitchener and Baden-Powell, so he was never made again.

 

A rare and important carved carousel mount torso by C J Spooner c.1900 and later, Burton-on-Trent, carved in the form of Joseph Chamberlain (£6,000-8,000)

A rare and important carved carousel mount torso by C J Spooner c.1900 and later, Burton-on-Trent, carved in the form of Joseph Chamberlain (£6,000-8,000)

 

 

Do you have a favourite piece in your collection?

 

My favourite - and the finest - galloper horse I have is from a set carved by Anderson of Bristol for William Sharples in 1895. The stance of this early horse is truly majestic and is heavily carved to both sides, and even to the inside of the neck, something I have never seen on any other galloper horse. The saddle blanket is also carved ‘W.S.’ showing the owner’s pride. This, in my opinion, makes this horse a true masterpiece and is the best I have ever owned.

 

How do you research and authenticate fairground items to ensure their provenance?

 

I have spent fifty years collecting Fairground Art and when I purchase a piece I get as much information as possible from where it was acquired. Over the last couple of decades, there have been websites such as the Fairground Heritage Trust set up and the National Fairground and Circus Archive at the University of Sheffield which have thousands of photos to access, so I trawl through them to identify the rides my pieces came from.

 

A magnificent large carousel galloper horse by Anderson,c.1895, Bristol, probably carved for Walter Sharples (£5,000-7,000)

A magnificent large carousel galloper horse by Anderson,c.1895, Bristol, probably carved for Walter Sharples (£5,000-7,000)

 

 

Many of the fairground items in your collection have undergone restoration, what was the process like and what is your approach to this process? 

 

My belief as to restoration is simple, I am just carrying on a tradition going back over hundreds of years, beginning with showmen continually redecorating pieces to present them in the best possible condition to attract customers. Virtually every piece I have collected is thick with overpaint, so I strip these layers back to reveal the original paint, and with these clues and my experience, I get each piece back to how it was when it first left the workshop.

If one is lucky enough to find a piece in its original paint, then I would never restore it. I have been lucky enough to find one such piece - a juvenile ‘Dobby’ Horse that will be in the auction - carved and painted by Anderson of Bristol, from a set made for the Presland show family of Tilbury, c.1900.

 

When you come to part with items in your collection, how do you decide what to let go of, and what is the experience like?

 

I have kept about twelve pieces from my collection to pass on to my grandchildren and these are special to me in various ways. This includes a pair of Spooner models of King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, carved in 1901 in readiness for their coronation, for Barker & Thurston’s swan gondola ride (Barker being my great uncle).

I believe every piece in my collection is the very finest of their type and I have restored these with passion and with respect of the original craftsmen that made them. I can’t lie, it is a wrench parting ways, as each piece is exceptional and it’s been a lifelong passion finding and restoring them, but I look forward to seeing how they are enjoyed by other collectors, knowing my name will always be connected to them.

 

A pair of juvenile 'Dobby' horses by Anderson c.1900, Bristol, each having an alternate saddlecloth design (£3,500-4,500)

A pair of juvenile 'Dobby' horses by Anderson c.1900, Bristol, each having an alternate saddlecloth design (£3,500-4,500)

 

With 50 lots on offer, our 7 March sale promises a wide range of fairground horses, carvings, light, and memorabilia for all to appreciate. Browse the full catalogue online now, and for more information contact our specialists.


 

 

 

Thursday 7 March | 4pm

auctions@sworder.co.uk | 01279 817778

 

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John Barker’s passion for fairground horses, carvings and wagons started at a very young age, inspired by his grandfather who was well connected in the world of fairground operations. After the success of selling a small portion of his collection in 2018, Sworders are in position and ready to offer the remainder in a designated sale in spring 2024 - giddy up!

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