A Proud History
The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, 1934 - 2009
Transcending the Tide of Time
It was on the site of the old London residence of the Earls of Grosvenor, which had housed one of England's finest private collections of art, that the first Fair was held. Richard, the first Earl of Grosvenor constructed the Grosvenor Gallery at Grosvenor House to display his magnificent collection of paintings including Gainsborough's famed 'Blue Boy' and over two hundred and fifty years later masterpieces (including Gainsboroughs) graced the walls of the Great Room at each staging of The Grosvenor House Fair.
In 1927, when Park Lane was still a narrow road on the edge of Hyde Park, the new Grosvenor House hotel was built on the site of the old Grosvenor House at a staggering cost of £1 million. The Grosvenor House hotel, in the heart of fashionable Mayfair, was selected as the perfect location by the Fair's creators, English dealers Alex G. Lewis and Cecil F. Turner, to realise their idea of an exhibition at which the exhibits would be for sale.
A Great Room
At the time the Great Room at Grosvenor House was a spectacular ice rink where extravagant society galas were held. The Park Lane Ice Club, often frequented by HRH The Prince of Wales, was the place to be seen in London, just as the Fair (in the same location) was. To meet the changing needs of London society, the ice was boarded over in 1934 and the area was converted to become Europe's largest ballroom. Located in the new Great Room, the first Fair was a bold move at the height of the Great Depression but proved a resounding success, running for three weeks in September 1934 and opening from 10am to 10pm every day but Sunday.
At the first Fair there were 87 stands. Christie's held a sale on the balcony to aid the miners' dependants, where a Chelsea plate went for a mere guinea and a Chippendale card table for eight guineas. In contrast at the 2009 Fair, £500 million worth of art and antiques was offered for sale with prices ranging from as little as £200 to as much as a few million pounds each.
The Second World War caused the Fair to break for six years when the Great Room became the largest officers’ mess in the world and housed US forces. When the Fair resumed in 1947 the date was moved from September to June - during the height of the London Season and it remained one of the highlights of the social calendar, attracting the rich and famous from around the world - particularly due to its glittering Charity Gala Evening.
Evolving from solid traditions of excellence and innovation, part of the Fair's enduring appeal was due to its careful balance of fine tradition with gradual modernisation. Originally 1830 (marking the end of the 'Georgian' era) was adopted as the date line and items created after this date were not permitted to be displayed. In 1994 the date line was removed and modern and contemporary painting, sculpture, furniture and other works of art were exhibited. Leading Modern Art dealers then stood alongside exhibitors such as Hotspur and H. Blairman & Sons who had exhibited at the Fair since the 1930s.
The Only Fair with Royal Patronage
In 1937, Queen Mary, a notable collector of the time, accorded the Fair her patronage. She was a regular visitor spending hours browsing and chatting to exhibitors and her interest in the Fair continued until her death in 1953. The following year, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother became the Royal Patron and remained so until her death in 2002. The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair was honoured when Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra agreed to become the Royal Patron in 2003, continuing the Fair’s long tradition of Royal Patronage. Her Royal Highness Princess Alexandra remained the Fair’s Patron until its closure in 2009.
The Fair had no less than thirty-eight Royal openings and a distinctive feature of the Fair for many years was the loan of treasures, not ordinarily on view, from the collections of Her Majesty The Queen, The Queen Mother and other members of the Royal Family.
Over the years nearly all members of the Royal Family have visited the Fair either on private visits or in an official capacity when they have officially opened the event.
International dealers were invited to exhibit at the Fair for the first time in 1990 which reflected the broad international appeal the Fair had. Collectors attended from around the world, particularly from the United States, to see an increasingly diverse and international range of exhibits encompassing everything from classical antiquities from the ancient worlds to very best of contemporary art and design.
Often copied, never matched
The Fair was launched under the name 'The Antique Dealers' Fair' and was so called until 1970 when it was changed to 'The Grosvenor House Antiques Fair'. Since 1934, The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, as it was named in 1994, has prided itself on the strict vetting of its exhibits by an extensive panel of experts divided into different specialities and under the auspices of the British Antique Dealers’ Association. Setting the standard for all that is best in art and antiques, the Fair's international popularity could be attributed to the quality of these exhibits. Since 1934 art lovers from around the world visited The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair, united by a passion of that which is rare and beautiful.
Quality and authenticity
Since 1934 some of the most important and exquisite works of art in the world have been exhibited and sold at the Fair, all of which, right from the outset were vetted for quality and authenticity by panels of experts from all disciplines. The Grosvenor House Fair vetting system, administered by The British Antique Dealers' Association, was internationally acclaimed as the best in the world and from its creation, stemmed the rules now adopted by all other major fairs.
Only works of the highest quality were shown at the Fair. A prime example being one of Canaletto’s finest views of Venice, which was exhibited by Moretti Fine Art Ltd. Venice, the Grand Canal looking East from the Palazzo Flangini to the Campo San Marcuola was painted by Canaletto, in 1738-9. Canalettos of this quality seldom come onto the market and the appearance of this one at The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair reinforced its reputation as one of the most prestigious events of its kind in the world.
Fine English furniture was the mainstay of the Fair. It was exciting news therefore when research by Apter-Fredericks revealed that a magnificent bookcase was not only one of the earliest and most important pieces by the renowned furniture makers Gillows to have appeared on the market for years, but also that it belonged to Lancashire Quakers for more than two centuries. When they bought the mahogany bookcase, the provenance was given as "by descent to the Gurney family".
Rediscoveries were not uncommon amongst the objects at Grosvenor House. A highlight was the unearthing of one of the greatest tapestries made in Elizabethan England which was offered for sale by S. Franses Ltd. almost a century after going missing. The Crocker Sheldon tapestry, 15ft wide by 6ft high, was last seen in an auction in the United States in 1909. Even then the seller, the great British art dealer Lord Duveen, did not realise that it had been produced in the Warwickshire workshop of William Sheldon, the finest tapestry maker in 16th century England.
Another exciting find on display was a rare portrait depicting Elizabeth I as a teenager. It was rediscovered by Philip Mould after languishing in obscurity for more than four centuries. The discovery of Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I when a Princess by an unknown artist was described as “an important and exciting development” by Dr David Starkey.
The Grosvenor House Fair was known for the offering of clocks and was delighted to have on display a rare masterpiece by England’s greatest clockmaker, Thomas Tompion, which was rediscovered in the palace of a Italian prince. It was on sale on the stand of Ronald Phillips Ltd. for what is thought to be the first time in more than three centuries. More than one-third of Tompion’s clocks are missing, mostly destroyed, and it was highly unusual for one to be found after such a long time.
Celebrating 75 Years of Elegance and Excellence
The final Fair took place between 11 and 17 June 2009 and was an acknowledged success. Echoing the past, the 2009 event took place in the worst recession known in recent times but sales throughout the Fair underlined the resilience of the art trade in this particular economic downturn. Simon Phillips, the Chairman of the 2009 Fair said, “We have had an exceptional Fair and I am delighted to note that we are not alone in that. Despite the economic gloom, this has been an extremely successful Fair and a very fitting way to celebrate our 75th anniversary”.
In 1934 visitors paid a mere two shillings to visit The Grosvenor House Art & Antiques Fair for the very first time. But, despite the test of time, the strong values and beliefs extolled all those years ago were still firmly adhered to and the Fair maintained its prominent position in the world of art and antiques until its closure in 2009 The Fair's enduring success was due to its commitment to excellence - the best dealers offering the most beautiful objects.