The origins of Bartholomew Fair can be traced back to the reign of Henry I when in 1133 a charter was first granted to the Prior of Smithfield. Based in the area of Smithfield cattle market near St Bartholomew hospital, the fair grew rapidly in popularity first as a cloth fair and then as London’s premier entertainment event. The fair was formally opened each year by the Lord Mayor of London on the eve of the feast day of St Bartholomew and ran for three full days in August by proclamation of the City, ‘to which all persons may freely resort and buy and sell according to the liberties and privileges of the said fair’.

By the early 18th century the fair had been extended to two full weeks and was fully developed as a commercial enterprise. In this early depiction the artist attempts to convey the sheer breadth of entertainments that were on offer there: fairground rides, fortune-tellers, acrobats and tight-rope walking, for example, among many other shows and stalls.