2009 Hanbook Article: Celebrating 75 Years of Celebrity Culture

Below is the introduction from the 2009 Handbook Article: Celebrating 75 Years of Celebrity Culture. To download the full article please click here or on the link at the bottom of the page.

75 Years of Celebrity Culture

The archives tell of a Fair ‘not to be missed by anyone who loved and appreciated beautiful objects’

The extensive list of those who have opened the Fair over the last 75 years is strewn with royal and aristocratic titles. The involvement of such figures was enormously significant to the nascent Fair, endorsing it as a touchstone of taste and propriety. This was more than welcome. Frank Davis recalled (Handbook 1961) that the very use of the term ‘fair’ had caused unease when this event was first mooted: ‘its undertones of popular, carefree amusement might give an impression of raucous irresponsibility, far removed from the cloisteral calm traditionally associated with the acquisition of works of art’. But such fears were swiftly laid aside, most particularly through the interest of Queen Mary, a fervent collector and, by all accounts, a respected connoisseur who never missed a visit.

In 1937, the year of the coronation of her son, King George VI, Queen Mary became the Fair’s first Patron (a mantle later passed to her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, and more recently to our current Patron, Princess Alexandra). She also made the first Royal Loans to the Fair, a tradition that continued for many decades, allowing the Fair-going public to enjoy works of art they would not normally see. This built on the suggestion of The Duke of Kent in 1935 (the first royal opener) that the Fair’s title should include the words ‘and Exhibition’, to encourage those who prefer just to look.

Past Handbooks make clear the perceived role of the Royal Family at that time as arbiters of taste and protectors of the national heritage. An article written by G. W. Whiteman (Handbook 1948) welcomes their involvement with the Fair, and remarks that they have, ‘shown by their consistent example and patronage the responsibilities we owe to our great heritage from the past’. In the report about the Fair that year in The Times, the writer remarks that, ‘Every member of the Royal Family has now visited the fair’. And indeed the Fair became noted as ‘a social event which no-one cared to miss’, ranking on the society calendar with Ascot, Wimbledon and the Derby. It was ‘a sight of London... for anyone who loved and appreciated beautiful objects’ (Handbook 1965). The pursuit of art and antiques began to be seen not as an esoteric endeavour, but as an appropriate and enjoyable way to furnish a home.

The association of the Fair with charitable giving can be traced right back to its beginning, and this involvement has brought with it some distinguished visitors. For many years, a proportion of the entrance money was given to charity, often the choice of the dignitary or member of royalty that performed the opening ceremony. Beneficiaries included a wide range, from the Sunshine Home for Blind Babies to the Hospital for Incurables and the Girl Guides. In modern times a Charity Gala Evening is held and the sums raised for charity are truly spectacular. This year, The Duchess of Cornwall, as President of the National Osteoporosis Society, will be present at the Fair for the Royal Charity Gala Evening.

On these pages are shown archival pictures of some of those who have opened or visited the Fair at Grosvenor House since its inception 75 years ago, each endorsing it with their approval and interest. It has come a long way since those dark, post-Depression days of the 1930s when it was conceived as a daring experiment to encourage trade. From earlier severity a sense of levity and optimism emerges from the images of the 1950s and ’60s. And as the years roll by, the character of Fair evolves, blending erudition and quality with beauty and enjoyment. The words written in 1948 still ring true. ‘When a visitor has once experienced its atmosphere, he will need no second invitation.’

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