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Dealer John Robertson vividly remembers the moment he uncovered the trove of pictures he is offering at this month’s Petworth Park Antiques and Fine Art Fair.

It was 1987 and he was visiting British artist John Heseltine (1923- 2016) to select some paintings for an upcoming show. As he prepared to leave, Robertson enquired about a ramshackle shed in the artist’s garden.

“He said it was what he wasted his life on and that he was going to put a match to the thing next time he moved, but I was interested,” Robertson said. “We went in and it was packed with his work.”

Specifically, it contained the huge collection of illustrations Heseltine had produced in his life as a commercial artist.

Though he had trained at the Royal College of Art, he started a lucrative career as a freelance commercial artist in 1949. Working mainly for the International Publishing Corporation, he led a new, distinctive style of British illustration. By the early 1980s, however, Heseltine had turned his back on these works.

Producing pictures on the schedule of the magazines was intensive work. Heseltine would send rough drafts to his editor on Fleet Street who would adjust the compositions. Then the artist would work with the fashion department to select the appropriate clothes and props, hire the appropriate models and fill in any exotic backgrounds working from available visual guides.

“It was immensely pressured work. I think he began to resent it after a while,” Robertson adds.

The dealer purchased the entire body of illustrations from Heseltine after the meeting in 1987. This was with the understanding that it would be kept back as a retirement project – Heseltine was reluctant to have the illustrations distract buyers from his more serious works.

Following the artist’s death three years ago, Robertson decided it was time to bring them out.

At the Petworth fair, which runs from May 10-12, he offers 100 illustrations, predominantly Heseltine’s acrylics from c.1965 onward. He also features the works of Heseltine’s fellow illustrator Fred Laurent (1922-95) and a selection of pictures by the artist’s wife, book cover illustrator Pam Masco (1953- 2018). The pair met through their shared agent.

Vintage look

“When I bought this collection, my judgment was that a certain time had to pass before these pictures got the vintage look they have now,” Robertson says. “A certain historical dissonance had to be established. These are certainly appealing to a younger audience for whom there is a magic about the 1960s and early ‘70s. People today look back to it as a golden age of pop culture.”

So far, interest has not been limited to millennials. Two women in their 60s came to view the collection after seeing a selection on the dealer’s website. After buying six of the works – offered with original copies of the magazines they appeared in – they revealed that they had been the models for those pictures, back in their student days.

More Petworth attractions

Robertson is among 60 exhibitors standing at the Petworth fair. The annual event offers visitors a range of antiques, including porcelain, glass, ceramics (see 5 Questions this week) and much more at a wide range of price points. Furniture is on offer from Mark Buckley Antiques, jewellery from Plaza, wildlife drawings from Sarah Colegrave Fine Arts and clocks from Richard Price, among other exhibitors.

Among the first-time exhibitors at this event is The Antique Enamel Company which draws from its stock of more than 1000 objects to offer pieces from prices around £300. One highlight at the other end of the spectrum is a c.1810 gold and enamel watch in the form of a mandolin, offered for £20,000.

The show is organised by The Antiques Dealers Fair Limited.