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Painting the fairground

Mark Gill is one of the last fairground hand painters and is busy preparing some rides for the Royal Easter Show at his Austral business.

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With the Sydney Royal Easter Show looming, Mark Gill's Austral studio is full of sideshow rides in need of a touch-up or new paint job.

One of the last fairground artists still standing, he has nearly finished a 20-metre section of the Break Dance ride and his brushes await the arrival of the Pirates Revenge (a Reverchon log flume) which completed a tour of duty at Melbourne's Moomba Festival last month. The Power Surge ride and a couple of saucers from the Saucer Ride are also in need of work.

''It's the busiest time of my year,'' the 51-year-old former Londoner said.


Finishing touches: Fairground artist Mark Gill works on some rides for the upcoming Royal Easter Show during the busiest time of his year. Photo: Wolter Peeters

At 16, Mr Gill was apprenticed to Fred Fowle, the doyen of English fairground artists at his Battersea studios. He came to Australia in 1999 to restore the carved wooden cockerels, horses and carriages of Sydney's Luna Park merry-go-round and stayed.

The truth was not only that Fowle had died, but also that the demand for old-fashioned fairground rides replete with elaborate decorations of brightly coloured patterns and lettering had been slowly fading since their heyday in the Victorian and Edwardian eras.

The animals and figurative pieces had made a last stand in the 1970s and 1980s, becoming treasured finds in antique shops.


"I may be one of the few [fairground artists] remaining": Mark Gill. Photo: Wolter Peeters

''But really it is an art form that became lost,'' Mr Gill said.

''I may be one of the few remaining. Of course, I don't call myself an artist any longer. I am a 'showman's decorator' … couldn't get insurance as an 'artist'.

''I love doing the old stuff though, but 90 per cent of my works now are modern images.''

Fairground artistry can be labour intensive. Mr Gill said there were 12 stages of painting; they include much waiting - about 24 hours at each stage for paint and lacquer to dry, shading and more shading to enhance a 3D effect and many little tricks such as trompe-l'oeil chamfered recesses using light and dark shadow corresponding to the notional direction of the light.

Some things, however, do not change. Mr Gill said his father, a circus signwriter, had warned him that showmen were traditionally mean-spirited. ''He told me, 'They'll promise you the earth, but keep it under their fingernails'.''

That's probably why Mr Gill's business card is laminated plastic - the few remaining showmen who buy his work have dirty hands.

The Easter Show runs from April 10-23.