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Unaffordable Art Fair at The Royal Hospital Chelsea

All that is solid melts into air. Thomas Johnston reviews ‘Masterpiece London’ alongside it’s transient faux-Georgian venue in Chelsea, London

Wealth is surface. Granted, it is depth of surface, but surface nonetheless. Concealment is only as deep as the penetrating eye can gaze, which with money can be really quite deep indeed. Masterpiece London, held in Chelsea in late June and early July, was an art fair par excellence. In a gargantuan space-frame structure erected on the parade grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, Picassos brushed shoulders with Peruvian antiquities, Lichtensteins met capital from Liechtenstein, and Dali danced opposite an Etruscan head.

The Unaffordable Art Fair, as it ought be named, caters to London’s growing cabal of the super-rich, perusing in opulent style the opportunities to privately purchase art, antiques and design of the highest calibre. This in itself is of limited interest: art has always attracted the varied tastes of the wealthy, but what this temporary megastructure in a field illustrates is wealth’s aversion to the mechanics below the surface.

The faux-Georgian facade, designed by Neptunu, disguises the temporary megastructure of Masterpiece London

The faux-Georgian facade, designed by Neptunus, disguises the temporary megastructure of Masterpiece London

The ‘tent’ itself − designed and installed by Neptunus − was a remarkable feat of aluminium engineering. Its lightweight complex space frame, however, remained hidden behind countless layers of fabric, painted panels and, most beguiling ofall, the full-length, two-storey high printed vinyl screen of a faux-Georgian facade. This under-scaled simulation of a structure that was never on the site − greeting visitors to the show through a three-dimensional Regency portico − gave heed to what lay beyond.

The interior of this structure − the vast majority of which is built by the Dutch exhibition company Stabilo (who are founding partners of the show) − consisted of elegant, perfectly coloured fabric walls that acted as staging for the display of art and design pieces of phenomenal value. Fabric ceilings presented a neutral, soft-lit backdrop; darkened interiors displayed Old Masters; custom-built, glossy display cabinets (coming in at tens of thousands of pounds for the cabinets alone) held jewellery including an enormous pearl said to once have belonged to Mary Queen of Scots, antiquities, porcelain and time-pieces. The floor was better carpeted than most prime market homes, and the lighting perfectly matched to the exhibits, throwing a general rich lustre to all and everyone.

Luxury interior finishes add to the resplendance of the event

Luxury interior finishes add to the resplendance of the event

Though truly amazing, the art was really of secondary importance − to this reviewer − to the fascination of the covering, the surface: the hidden non-depth that existed in a show that lasted for a mere eight days. From the vinyl-Georgiana to the fabric-festooned interior, via the deep-pile carpets of many a stand, what Masterpiece demonstrated is a marked antagonism between the ‘behind the scenes’ and money, and a desire to build a visage of permanence through theimpermanent.

Peeking behind the curtains, looking behind the drapes, lifting the pelmet of any exhibition stand and you found cheap ply-panelling, nails and screws, aluminium extrusions and miles upon miles of temporary cabling. All this was hidden from view, the art of making covered with vinyl and cloth that attempted to manufacture a contextual face against the backdrop of the Hospital and the foreground of the Thames, in one of London’s most expensive districts. How all this came into being, or even a suggestion, a hint at the underlying efforts to construct such a palace of opulent art and dining experiences, was rigorously concealed.

David Linley's 'Skyline Marqutry Panel' depicts a composed London skyline

David Linley’s ‘Skyline Marqutry Panel’ depicts a composed London skyline

This tendency towards the surface lay in the experience of the art as much as anything else. History, context, production were absent from the display of these fine works of human creativity − absent except for one striking instance where the actual manufacture of an object was physically admitted to. An incredible piece of contemporary marquetry by David Linley, whose stand showed a collage of still and video images illustrating the making of the Skyline Marquetry Panel − a banker’s delight of an object, depicting a composed London skyline of the home of international capital − its tectonic honesty striking in its uniqueness at the fair.

Contrast Masterpiece with the Affordable Art Fair (AAF) − similar in its structural set-up, just slightly less expensive in its content: the AAF, held in Hampstead two weeks prior to Masterpiece, acknowledged its tent structure, exposed its air conditioning and appealed to that middle-class (middle-budget) desire for honesty, home-spun making and ‘craft’. Here, the depth was made surface (structure made aesthetic), while the relationship at Masterpiece was inverted: with wealth, it appears, comes the desire to make the surface deeper, lusher, more lustrous, while hiding, covering and draping the human effort behind the veneer.


Event: Masterpiece London Art Fair
Venue: The Parade Grounds at Royal Hospital Chelsea
City: London

Readers' comments (1)

  • All this reminds me of the The Field of the Cloth of Gold - Henry the VIII's monumental tent like structure built to impress the French King during their meeting on the 7th of June 1520. "Before the castle of Guines, a temporary palace covering an area of nearly 12,000 square yards (10,000 m2), was erected for the reception of the English king. The palace was in four blocks with a central courtyard; each side was 328 feet (100 m) long. The only solid part was the brick base about 8 feet (2 m) high.[4] Above the brickwork, the 30-foot (10 metre) high walls were made of cloth or canvas on timber frames, painted to look like stone or brick". Wikipedia

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