In recent years, it seems as though there is a new set of art fairs popping up spontaneously on the calendar without a moment’s notice. Many of these tend to be derivative of others, exhibiting the same kinds of work and targeting the same minority of wealthy collectors. Yet dealers continue to exhibit in as many fairs as necessary for them to obtain new clients and sell their stock. Application fees rack up considerably and further costs are needed to build their attractive stands. Sales are never guaranteed at these events, especially at the higher price levels. At a certain point you begin to wonder how sustainable this is for their business model.
When I first heard about Connect: The Independent Art Fair, I was genuinely excited. It branded itself as an affordable, fully vetted fair run by independent art dealers. It sought to bring in dealers who ran their businesses online, as well as those who occupied premises on the high street. Not all of them are London-based. In doing so, it offered a chance for them to meet people face-to-face.
With the recent closure of the Works on Paper Fair and Art Antiques London – all aimed at entry and mid-level collectors – Connect aimed to fill this sudden gap in the calendar. The inaugural edition had a strong focus on modern British art, somewhat spearheaded by the repeating presence of works by Julian Trevelyan and his wife Mary Fedden.
One of the highlights is a painting of Strawberry Hill that John Iddon (Stand 22) commissioned from Trevelyan in 1988. A month after receiving a sketch in the post, Iddon phoned Fedden asking if he could speak to her husband. He was told that Trevelyan had died two weeks earlier; Iddon still considers it one of the most embarrassing conversations of his life. Not feeling ready to part with her husband’s last painting, Fedden offered to paint a version herself, filled with harlequins brandishing sparklers. By a stroke of coincidence, Trevelyan’s painting came into the possession of James Manning (Manning Fine Art, Stand 33), the fair’s director, and Freya Mitton (Stand 25) will be selling Fedden’s related drawing of her replacement picture. For the first time in decades, both pieces can be seen as part of a special display (Stand 5) paying tribute to one of the most famous artist-couples in modern British art.
Other notable artists of the period can also be found at affordable prices. Figures like Francis Bacon, Joan Miró, and Pablo Picasso feature frequently at most art fairs. However, very few can be found at the low thousands or even lower. I was stunned to find that this was the case at Fairhead Fine Art (Stand 24). Confidence in their authenticity was a not a problem either. Connect goes through all the rigorous vetting procedures that you would find at the most prestigious fairs in the world. The director Niall Fairhead happily shows visitors the catalogue raisonnés and relevant literature; these are necessary steps in the field of authentication and every exhibitor abides by them. But his best attribute as a dealer and enthusiast is his desire to tell people about the stories behind these artworks.
The fair has a relaxed atmosphere that can seldom be said about others. A modest 34 dealers occupy the venue so there is no pressure to rush and see everything. Overall, the dealers are friendly and happy to help. After speaking to several exhibitors, it was clear to me that every one of them placed customer service over everything else.
Many of them are seasoned exhibitors at larger fairs like LAPADA, BADA, and Affordable Art Fair, yet they still feel that Connect offers them the freedom to show off what they really want people to see. Matthew Hall of Panter & Hall (Stand 29) wanted to show that pieces by little-known artists at affordable prices can often outshine those by famous artists whose second-rate artworks might sell for millions at auction. A lot of people buy into the brand of trending artists; very few dare to explore the riches of the unknown. At Blondes Fine Art (Stand 31), I was curiously attracted to Basil Jonzen’s Donkey in Olive Grove (1932) which showed the same substantial treatment of paint as Vincent van Gogh. I also witnessed a mastery of draughtsmanship from arts graduate Georgia Jennings Moor whose photo-realist Achillea (2017) is being shown at Coombe Gallery (Stand 3). Connect strikes a brilliant balance between these two types of art collecting.
The fair is impressively catered to numerous tastes in art. Old Master enthusiasts like me will find much delight at Elizabeth Harvey-Lee (Stand 31), where a fine impression of Albrecht Dürer’s Saint George on Horseback (1505-08) can be found presiding over centuries of printmaking history. Fans of French painting and sculpture might be surprised to find a small oil study by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec at Horton London (Stand 14) painted at Malromé, the home of the artist’s mother. On a pedestal nearby is the extraordinarily rare and beautiful marble La Verite Meconnue (c.1908), designed by Aimé-Jules Dalou and exclusively carved by his studio assistant Auguste Becker. At Ottocento (Stands 8 and 9), I managed to glimpse a proficient drawing by Jean-Léon Gérôme among an eclectic array of Pop artists and abstractions.
It is sometimes rare for art fairs to represent niche markets; this is not the case for Connect. One can find Scandinavian and Scottish art at Saunders Fine Art (Stand 20), Japanese prints at Japan Print Gallery & Andre Bartega (Stand 28), pictures of boats and warships at Maritime Originals (Stand 19), and antiques at Ted Few (Stand 34). One of my personal favourites at Francis Iles Galleries (Stand 27) was Flowers in Alcove by the Russian painter Alexander Kirillov; it has all the brilliance and illusionary perfection of 17th-century trompe-l’oeil paintings. If books are your thing, Marcus Campbell Art Books (Stand 13) and Neil Schofield (Stand 10) are perfect for bibliophiles.
The inaugural edition of Connect has shown that art fairs can still be new and exciting. The market remains accessible and collectors can find quality pieces without breaking the bank. But most importantly, dealers aren’t quite as intimidating as people assume. Art collecting is a passionate pastime with a steep learning curve that gets easier with frequent conversations. Connect provides a comfortable space for these conversations, allowing new and seasoned collectors to not only get to know the exhibitors but to connect with the wider art world.
Connect: The Independent Art Fair runs from 29 January to 2 February 2019, www.connectartfair.co.uk.