Art trade is fast replacing rag trade as former fashion showrooms become picture palaces

By Clive Jennings

Painting of Houses of Parliament.

Brendan Hansbro, Houses of Parliament 2, at Curwen Gallery.

It is difficult to avoid the burgeoning art scene in Fitzrovia as more new galleries seem to pop up every week, and Eastcastle Street (or should that be Artcastle Street) and its environs are now a major International art destination. Art trade is fast replacing rag trade as galleries transform former fashion showrooms into picture palaces. Many of the new galleries have made a major investment in architect designed, airy white walled spaces, and are planning to be here for the duration. Four new art galleries opened in Fitzrovia between December 2011 and March 2012, bringing the total up to 45, all listed on the back page of our print edition. The most recent additions are: Bartha Contemporary (25 Margaret Street), Yannick Gallery (74 Wells Street), Caroll /Fletcher (56-57 Eastcastle Street) and Haunch of Venison (51 Eastcastle Street), the latter two occupying particularly impressive, elegant spaces.

On a cold night in January, visitors to the private view of Philip Lai’s exhibition at Modern Art on Eastcastle Street were confronted with a locked street door. A Gallerina directed us to walk around the block to the goods entrance in Marylebone Passage, where we entered the gallery via a series of scruffy storerooms and passages, culminating in the opportunity to display ourselves in the street window, under the harsh glare of a striplight.

Claiming to explore that old chestnut “What is Art” is an exhibition at the Grant Museum of Zoology, to March 9, of paintings made by animals. Older readers will remember the wonderful creations of Congo the chimpanzee on the TV programme “Zootime” presented by Zoologist and Surrealist artist, Dr Desmond Morris. Co-curated by Slade School of Fine Art graduate, Mike Tuck, this is believed to be the first ever multi species art show, and includes some sensitive flower pieces by Thai elephant, Boon Me.

Art Fare (this column) plans to keep its readers abreast of the local art world with art news and quickfire interviews with a selection of galleries, in forthcoming issues. This time, we talk to Jill Hutchings, director of Fitzrovia’s longest standing gallery, The Curwen & New Academy: Alli Beddoes co-founder of one of the first of the new wave, Gallery Vela, and Rachelle Lunnon of Rook & Raven Gallery, 7/8 Rathbone Place, open just four months.

Jill Hutchings, Curwen & New Academy Gallery, 34 Windmill Street

FN: How long has the gallery been open?
CG: We opened at No. 4 in 1982, and at No. 34 in 1987, merging the two spaces in 2005.

FN: What attracted you to Fitzrovia?
CG:  The Curwen Studio had been in Colville Place since 1958  (Now The Movie Poster Art Gallery) so it made sense to be nearby, and we both new the area well.

FN: Who are the directors and what are their backgrounds?
CG: Myself and my husband, John Hutchings. John sadly died in 2009. John had been advising the Curwen Studio and Gallery since the late ‘60’s and became a director of the Curwen. I previously worked at the Middlesex Hospital, and our daughter and son-in-law both trained as doctors there.

FN: What is your policy on choice of artists?
CG: Most importantly we look for a high standard of work based on my judgement, and that of my two young colleagues Robin and Natalie. We are very loyal to our gallery artists, supporting them through changes of style, but are always prepared to look at new work.

FN: Any forthcoming highlights?
CG: In March, we have a major show by Robin Richmond, who spent many years in arts broadcasting. In April, an exhibition of Master Prints selected from the Curwen Gallery archives, often described as a treasure trove, by those who are lucky enough to delve its depths. All of the prints in this exhibition were produced at the Curwen studio, first set up in 1958. Each of these artists worked alongside the Master Lithographer, Stanley Jones whilst making their prints there. In May Lucy Willis, granddaughter of cartoonist and watercolourist, H M Bateman (famous for his “The man who …” series of cartoons) is showing with us.

FN: Almost 10% of London galleries are now in Fitzrovia, do you see it increasing and becoming an internationally famous art gallery area like Chelsea in New York City?
CG: Yes, Fitzrovia is a thriving, ongoing art area. It would be good to see a few more galleries that show more classic art.

FN: Any info about the building/previous tenants?
CG: It was the main base for fan clubs for The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Slade and Ozzy Osbourne.

FN: Anything else of Fitzrovian interest?
CG: John and I lived in Fitzrovia from 1992, in Centre Point and Ridgemount Street, and I now live above the gallery.

Alli Beddoes, Gallery Vela, 38 Langham Street

FN: How long has the gallery been open?
GV: Two and a half years.

FN: What attracted you to Fitzrovia?
GV: As there are a number of galleries in the area, it works well in terms of gallery goers visiting us on the same day. We were very keen to find a gallery space in Fitzrovia because it’s a unique place of London – right in the centre of the city (so easy to get to), but feels a millions miles away from the hubbub of activity just a few streets up from Oxford Street. Also, proximity to Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park – we always programme an exhibition to be on at the gallery at the same time. People visiting London tend to enjoy a break from the tent and seek out new galleries nearby.

FN: Who are the directors and what are their backgrounds?
GV: I started my career at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, moving on to work as artist’s assistant to Richard Wentworth (famously based in Kings Cross) and then as studio manager to Ryan Gander; and  Patrick Cameron previously worked as exhibition co-ordinator at Chisenhale Gallery, the Institute of Contemporary Art and The Barbican Centre.

FN: What is your policy on choice of artists?
GV: Our aim is to present an ambitious programme of artists, showcasing the very best in contemporary art. We do not have a house style – our artists’ works are multifaceted, from painting and sculpture to video and photography to embroidery and readymades.

FN: Forthcoming highlights?
GV: We are really looking forward to these shows at the gallery: Sam Griffin is presenting new work in March (private view 22 March) for his solo show. He will present a new selection of drawings, sculptures and readymades. As a group of networked objects, the pieces exhibited by Griffin are intended to examine the contemporary condition of both work and of employment. The exhibition poses such questions as: what motivates us to work, and under what terms, and to what ends? This and other questions form the basis of Griffin’s exploration of the nuances of workplace ideologies and superstitions. In April (private view on April 26), Eddie Peake is curating an exhibition called ‘Ruby’, including works by Christina Mackie (recently showing at Chisenhale Gallery), Alexandre de Cunha (solo at Camden Arts Centre in 2009) and Daniel Sinsel.

FN: Almost 10% of London galleries are now in Fitzrovia, do you see it increasing and becoming an internationally famous art gallery area like Chelsea in New York City?
GV: The great thing about Fitzrovia is the variety of galleries in the area, from small up and coming to large established operations.

FN: Any info about the building/previous tenants?
GV: In 2005, Alex Sainsbury (currently of Raven Row in Spitalfields) ran 38 Langham Street – it was on a different floor to Gallery Vela – and I remember visiting the gallery for a David Batchelor solo exhibition and loving the gallery.

Rachelle Lunnon, Rook & Raven Gallery, 7/8 Rathbone Place

FN: How long has the gallery been open?
RR: We moved here in September 2011 and hosted our first exhibition towards the end of October.

FN: Who are the directors and what are their backgrounds?
RR: Richard Grindy – I came from a corporate background in London before moving into the music industry, working with record labels such as Universal and Island. I began to work closely with painters and photographers and began to commission them for projects such as album artwork and tour poster campaigns. We developed 2R Art and began hosting a number of pop up gallery and live music venues and events.
Rachelle Lunnon – I studied art at UCL & SOAS and after graduating spent time working at Christies Auctioneers.

FN: What attracted you to Fitzrovia?
RR: We liked the area because it has the vibrancy and creativity of Soho, which has been long associated with artists and performers, but with a slightly more laid back edge. Plus it is occupied by like-minded creative businesses.

FN: What is your policy on choice of artists?
RR: We want to stay relatively open minded when working with artists. Our tag line is ‘Alternative Contemporary’, which should give some clue as to the type of work we display. We have found that we’re working with a number of artists who are making a name for themselves in the US, but who have yet to break fully into the London scene. An example of a gallery and selection of artists that we particularly admire is OHWOW in LA. We currently represent artists who specialise in painting, stencils, photography and collage.

FN: Forthcoming highlights?
RR: We are really excited about the ‘Terry O’Neill – Reworked’ exhibition that launches on March 8 and runs through until the end of the month. This is the first time that Terry has allowed a selection of artists to manipulate his iconic photographs and reinterpret them in their own style. Collaborating artists include Curtis Kulig, James ‘Dalek’ Marshall and Pam Glew. We’ve also got a selection of four rising painters from the US and Canada displaying in April and PENNY’s first solo show opening in May.

FN: Almost 10% of London galleries are now in Fitzrovia, do you see it increasing and becoming like Chelsea NYC?
RR: We love the fact that Fitzrovia is becoming a gallery destination zone. We hope to see this continue to grow and hopefully become like Chelsea in NYC, where Londoners and tourists both make a point of visiting the area to experience the range of galleries and art on show.

FN: Anything else you think may be of interest to local readers?
RR: We want Rook & Raven to be a welcoming space to relax in and view the artwork. We want to avoid the often sterile and stuffy environments of many established galleries. Please feel free to pop in, meet the team behind the gallery and enjoy a drink whilst taking in the art around you.

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