Week - 82 - Build to Bang


Arriving on site in high viz with my steel-toe-capped boots, there is a frenetic energy crackling in the atmosphere. The exhibitors' own contractors arrive on Wednesday to join the already numerous Stabilo staff, they have two days to prepare before the gates are opened on Saturday morning for the exhibitors themselves who arrive en masse and under pressure. By Sunday night everything has to be ready for the vetting committees to begin their adjudication on Monday morning. So from Tuesday morning, when I get back from Basel, until Sunday night it is a race against the clock. 160 dealers, each one feeling important and each with a vision of their stand as the picture of perfection rushes and presses to get the attention of the various contractors. Electricians, wall-paperers, joiners and carpet-layers run around like creatures possessed, working as swiftly as they can and fending off the many who hover hoping to be their next job. The fair is built by the Dutch firm Stabilo, and as an extra nuance to the general fever there is a certain buzz about the progress of the Netherlands football team in the World Cup in far-off Brazil. Beginning the competition as outsiders they are having an excitingly good run. I see one guy with a noisy buzzing jigsaw sending up a cloud of sawdust as he cuts out a board from a massive slab of plywood to support a giant photograph of the World Cup. Stabilo cannot work when a match is on so we encounter a couple of unanticipated and significant delays.

Out in Ranelagh Gardens, to the east of our giant tent, they are trucking in and laying out the exhibition of monumental sculpture by Philip King, curated and fashioned by the Thomas Dane gallery. Bright and bold colours sit unexpectedly comfortably amongst the trees and bushes of the gardens. Dynamic yet serene, lyrical yet muscular, the works are duly buffed up and labelled in anticipation of next week's crowds. I have a minor palpitation when I hear over the walkie talkies that one of the delivery people has dropped one of the sculptures. It turns out that this is simply an in-house way of saying that it has been successfully placed - so no harm done, except to my nerves. I see Philip in the gardens enjoying the feel of the grass under his feet, his paint-daubed crocs have been kicked off and he is emotionally connecting with his pieces which in a few works span his entire career, thus far.

The office is frantic too: the team move on site on Friday. Computers have to be packed up and files sorted. Though it is an annual move, it is never easy and there are always countless things to be both remembered and stowed. I try to stay out of everyone's way but it is impossible not to be sucked into the gathering excitement and swept onwards by the sense of hurry and rush.

Back on site the vast kitchens are being installed. Enormous shiny metal ovens and grills are slowly placed alongside cavernous fridges and massive food-preparation tables. It is hard to take in the scale of the display - and this is just back of house, behind the scenes. Other areas take shape, with decking laid on the terrace and carpets throughout the interior.

Saturday morning bright and early and in floods the art itself. Like insects swarming over a newly killed animal so do brightly-coloured t-shirts cover the double football pitch that is Masterpiece and astonishingly quickly packing cases are broached and delectable pieces from the dawn of art to the present day emerge blinking and sometimes twinkling into the sunlight. I meet Tony Fell from Holt in Norfolk, whose romantic swept back hair and flowery shirt give him the air of someone on holiday rather than a person preparing for a week of intense conversations and selling. He unpacks a white-painted George III console table, a fresh piece of stock which takes pride of place on his stand. He steps back to admire its position with a mixture of hope, excitement and nervousness. Down the hall, the Franklin brothers, silver dealers, have taken the brave move of displaying their treasures on stands rather than in display cases. As a result they have employed a guard to watch over their stylish black stand, smiling and quietly menacing. They are eagerly buffing and putting in place their cherished works of art. They punctuate their set-up with regular escapes to the terrace where they hoover up cigarettes nervously with other exhibitors. Two charming Italians from Milan, Roberto Caiati and Georgio Gallo, are exhibiting for the first time, showing old master paintings and works of art. As with many of the exhibitors, English is not their first language but they speak it well, and they are excited about being at the fair. Masterpiece exhibitors come from all over the world. As I walk round, each corner brings an opportunity for practising my French and Italian, which are rusty but nonetheless vitally useful. At the end of one aisle I admire the stand of Charlie Wallrock who has a collection of dressing cases - each one is exceptional and he has nearly 30. He is English and I find myself semi-translating our conversation in my head, as if English is now a foreign language. I quickly re-set but it is a strange feeling.

Saturday night and we all repair to the Orange in Pimlico Road. In this friendly, wood-panelled public house with its airy additional dining room the traditional pub, the Italian bistro, and the London restaurant seem to be combined. There is steak and kidney pie or pizza, and there is also deep-fried squid in black pepper with chilli sauce. You can drink champagne or you can have a pint of ale. The Orange is full of exhausted and hot exhibitors - it has been a long day, the sun has been blazing and everyone has worked hard. Beer and champagne are heartily despatched as talk of the great event to come and anecdotes of other fairs fill the air. The mood is positive as it always is in advance: hope and expectation are the dominant emotions and we all depart slightly wobbly but happy and full of good fellowship.