Today I took the opportunity to stroll around Carters Steam Fair before opening on its second and final day in Clissold Park. It is a lettering goldmine and I was lucky enough to get some time with Joby Carter, the man behind the brush on much of the work there. Here are a stack of pictures that I took and, further on, some words about the fair, its history and the work of Joby Carter. Thank you to Joby, Anna and all the Carter family for your time and help – enjoy the rest of this year’s tour.
After taking these photos I had a chat with Joby Carter, son of the fair’s late founder John Carter. Aged just two when the fair first opened in 1977, he has since become an expert on fairgrounds, their history and the accompanying lettering traditions. For the last seven years he has been sharing some of this experience through his signwriting and fairground art workshops at Carters’ winter base in Maidenhead.
Joby’s own learning came through a combination of family tradition and training under a master signwriter. Joby’s father, John Carter, trained at Slade School of Art, and his mother was also an art college graduate. Joby started out by assisting them with some of the pictorial work around the fair, most of which is still done by his mother, Anna Carter. He was then deemed good enough to start doing pieces by himself and undertook further training in lettering from the fair’s resident signwriter, Stan Wilkinson. Stan is now retired and signwriting at the fair is entirely Joby’s responsibility. His skills were recently celebrated in this piece for the BBC, titled ‘21st Century Victorian‘.
After meeting him at his first ever signwriting workshop, Joby has now taken on his own full-time apprentice, Aaron Stephens. This continues a signwriting lineage that is now five generations old. Stan Wilkinson was apprenticed to a Mr Giles who was in turn trained by his own father, an in-house signwriter for Hovis in Basingstoke. I wonder if he ever had to do any Hovis signs on brick, the remains of which remain dotted across the country as ‘ghostsigns‘?
Joby’s story is steeped in history and this echoes that of the fair itself. With original steam rides dating from 1895 it is a genuine piece of living, working history. One of these rides is ‘John Carter’s Jubilee Steam Gallopers’ which are situated directly opposite Joby’s caravan. Among the pictures above is a signwritten history of the ride which includes component parts from as far and wide as Norwich, Bristol and Paris. The fair has followed a similar process of salvaging rides and component parts, before restoring them to their former glory. A key element of this is the decorative work and lettering which is always researched in detail to ensure an authentic end product. For example, while striping back some newer paint work on one ride, Joby uncovered designs and colours from a much earlier layer. He was then able to replicate these within his restoration. It is this attention to detail that makes the fair the real deal. As Ashley Bishop of the Brilliant Sign Company put it:
The fair should be declared a UNESCO world heritage site. What they do is unique, even in world terms. Any student of sign writing will be in wonderland with a visit to Carters.
I’ll second that, as you can see from the small selection of lettering that I photographed today. Make sure you visit when they’re next in your neighbourhood. Also, for more fairground resources and inspiration you should check out the National Fairground Archive in Sheffield. Thanks again to Joby Carter and the Carter Family. Sam