The opening of the 20/21 British Art Fair at the Royal College of Art was perfect timing for London. In the hangover of Olympic and Paralympic glory, the fair provides the opportunity to further indulge our fresh new mood of national pride. Now we are proud of our sportsmen and women and our capital city, we should look afresh at our artists and see if they shape up too.
Celebrating its 25th birthday this year, 20/21 well pre-dates Frieze and the Affordables. Arts Media Contacts Editor Hannah Ball and I went along to the opening day to see what has made it so successful and what sets it apart from its newer rivals.
The Royal College of Art provides for a welcoming entrance to the fair. The central aisle is lined with spacious stands by top West End dealers. We chose to take a left, and in doing so saved the most established galleries for a climactic finish. The layout of the fair effectively guides you around two floors of the Royal College. The top floor is benefited by natural light pouring through circular vents in the ceiling, and the downstairs floor is also well lit. Indeed the Fine Art Partnership, who were declared Best Dressed Stand, benefited from the split level layout, allowing light from the glass wall to fall into their stand.
The element that really marks 20/21 from the crowd is its exclusive focus on British art, modern and contemporary. The dealers were certainly exhibiting big hitters this year with works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth hanging side by side with Damien Hirst and Banksy. A piece that really stood out for us was showing on Beaux Arts Bath by Lucy Glendinning ‘Feather child’. The sculpture was so tactile we fought the urge to stroke the feathers on the peaceful infant’s head.
There was certainly a post London 2012 theme running through the fair. Rebecca Hossack’s emphasis is on her ‘Londinium’ collection. Laura Jordan’s London works are about last summer’s riots. We also liked Phil Shaw’s Londinesi Subterraneis series – depicting a bookshelf themed by underground lines and colours. Hossack’s selection stood out with its bold contemporary exhibits.
Dominic Guerrini’s stand was particularly impressive. Occupying the first space as you come downstairs it has a great hang of works by Banksy, Hepworth, Hirst, Emin, Riley, Hockney and Moore all rubbing shoulders in closely packed frames. Guarrari was ahead of the game with the inclusion of QR codes allowing quick and easy access to the art works’ pages.
The Royal College is an elegant venue for the fair and an appropriate one as 20/21 does have a slightly academic feel to it. Most of the artists on show either are, or certainly will be, studied by art students. This ambience was confirmed with the opening words of special guest A. N. Wilson. Wilson recognised the Royal College’s links with crafts, noting his personal connection with the institute in which his father taught ceramics. Wilson noted that there were less craft elements to the fair this year. However among our favourite works at 20/21 were the highly affordable porcelain pieces by Katherine Morling on the lower floor, which were exhibited by Long & Ryle. Within two hours of opening, most of these pieces had already sold.
The opening day was attended by a well-heeled and intelligent crowd, most of whom seemed seriously interested in the art around them. But the overwhelming atmosphere was friendliness. We stayed for hours and the dealers, collectors and organisers (who all seemed to know each other) were more than happy to talk to us.
20/21 offers a fantastic opportunity to see some of the finest British art of our age, with a diverse offering from many dealers. Anyone with an interest in art should go – even just to have a look. And if you do have some cash, then you will find that many of the works are surprising well within reach. Why you could even get carried away and celebrate success in British sport by investing in British art …
20/21 British Art Fair was at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 2EU until Sunday 16th September. www.britishartfair.co.uk