When I moved back to London in 2010 after 10 years away, I found an art world transformed. The scene in the 90s had been polarised. In Mayfair were forbidding galleries with willowy beauties at the front desks and pinstripe-suited smoothies in the back offices. In the East End, penniless galleries and studios peppered the upper floors of flaking, soot-stained ex-industrial blocks, and young crowds mustered on the streets drinking Beck’s beer before decamping to a nearby pub.
Tate Modern opened in 2000. Like a pheromone-laden moth, it seemed to mark the route for the art invasion that was to follow. Within a few years the icy cool art magazine Frieze launched the first edition of its art fair in Regent’s Park. International buyers started to see the city as an important stop off. Galleries followed them.
By 2010, a new art infrastructure had sprouted, twining throughout the city, supported by and nurturing a global mania for contemporary art. Slick glass-fronted spaces appeared in streets that had, a few years before, exhibited little more than discarded takeaway containers and single shoes. Hopeful young galleries were picking their way through the city’s remaining affordable postcodes. Meanwhile in Mayfair and St James’s, the old-school pinstripe suits had given way to a new generation of internationally savvy dealers whose calendars took in the carousel of art fairs in Basel, Hong Kong, New York, Paris and Miami.
At the periphery appeared a host of new entities – foundations, incubators, associations, not-for-profits, collectives. What were all these things? Where had they come from? Were they any good? And, most importantly, was I allowed to visit them?
On one level, my new book Art London is the primer I wish I’d had back then, when I was trying to make sense of London’s new art landscape. Neighbourhood by neighbourhood it leads you to spaces all over London where you can see art, most of them free. Not all the action is happening in Mayfair – some of the best public galleries in the city can now be found in New Cross, Mile End, Camden and Camberwell.
The commercial galleries are spread all over too, and they are open to all. You may not have the wherewithal to buy the art they are showing, but it is important to visit these spaces and see art before it is sold and disappears from view.
‘Artists have been drunk and disreputable in London for centuries. The gallons consumed by some of Hogarth’s contemporaries would have put the YBAs to shame’
Art London is a history of art in the city, as scattered and fragmented as the scenes that it draws on. Rather than trying to plot a single unified story, this is a history that celebrates the plurality of London’s art histories. Here Hogarth, Turner and Constable share the page with the 17th-century portraitist Mary Beale, Marie Spartali who transcended her role as a Pre-Raphaelite “stunner” to support her family as a painter, and photographic pioneer Julia Margaret Cameron.
Piecing together London’s art histories, patterns start to emerge. Alcohol is one – artists have been drunk and disreputable in London for centuries. The gallons consumed by some of Hogarth’s contemporaries would have put the YBAs to shame. Poverty is another – art is a difficult way to make a living. Many, like Francis Newton Souza who moved to London from Goa in the late 40s, spent years penniless before their works were shown.
There have also always been artists who knew how to promote themselves. Damien Hirst was far from London’s first market-savvy artist: Hogarth and Turner both took a business-like approach, churning out popular prints for the growing middle-class market.
Alcohol, poverty, self-promotion: these traits are common to artists the world over. What characterises London, above all, was and continues to be its cosmopolitanism. Before the Royal Academy was founded in 1768, London had no significant training institution for artists. Painters to the Royal Court in the 16th and 17th centuries were overwhelmingly from continental Europe: often Flemish refugees fleeing religious persecution. They were gifted, well-schooled in their craft, and London needed them: there were no English artists at the time that could compete.
Hans Holbein the Younger, King’s painter to Henry VIII, was German. Our voluptuous, florid vision of the court of Charles I – all tassels, sculpted beards and clouds of silk – came from the hand of Anthony van Dyck (Flemish) who was succeeded by Peter Lely (Dutch).
The 34 founding members of the Royal Academy were likewise a pan-European bunch. The so called London School – figurative painters who dominate our view of the second half of the 20th century – include the US-born artist and critic RB Kitaj, Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach (both born in Germany) and Francis Bacon (born in Ireland.)
In London, all these stories build up layer on layer – some are known, others less so. There is something intoxicating about standing outside White Cube gallery on Mason’s Yard in St James’s and knowing that Indica once held an exhibition by a young artist called Yoko Ono in the same square: there she handed a card to a bespectacled musician from Liverpool that
Did you know that Jean Cocteau’s paintings were apprehended at Croydon Airport in 1938 for their obscene suggestion of pubic hair? Or that he returned in 1959 to paint the inside of the Lady Chapel at Notre Dame de France, just off Leicester Square?
There are so many good stories, if you know where to find them.
Secrets of London’s art neighbourhoods
When Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s wife Elizabeth Siddal died in 1862, the distraught artist buried the only complete manuscript of his poems with her. (They were exhumed seven years later.) A flamboyant and recognisable figure – the archetypal bohemian – Rossetti moved to 16 Cheyne Walk in Chelsea which he shared with a menagerie including deer, exotic birds and Top, his beloved wombat, a species he considered “the most beautiful of all God’s creatures”.
In 1971, Bruce McLean cofounded Nice Style: The World’s First Pose Band, a glam rock band reimagined as sculpture. The title and works echoed the aspirational advertising language of the time (“British Airways: the world’s favourite airline.”) Reintroducing the human figure to sculpture in a period dominated by abstraction, Nice Style was an exploration of advertising, pose and surface. Renting an office off The Strand, they publicised performances like consumer products.
Over four decades Jo Brocklehurst painted the nocturnal life of London in all its peacock finery: cabaret artists, bohemians, New Romantics, punks, drag queens and fetish fans. At the dawn of the 80s she befriended the punk Puppy Collective who had squatted a building near her studio in Maida Vale. Brocklehurst persuaded them to sit for her: singly, in pairs, and in various states of undress, among them Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol.
Discovering the council planned to erect bollards on Agar Grove near his house in Camden, sculptor Barry Flanagan drove a truck armed with a cement mixer, industrial sewing machine and wheelbarrow up by night and stitched together large blue canvas sacks which were filled with sand and cement, placed them around the street and fixed to the spot with length of rebar. Camden forgave him: in 80 they commissioned the public sculpture Camdonian, now installed on Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
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