Get the Inside Track on the London Art Scene
Discover the secrets of the London art world with local expert Georgia Spray
London has one of the most diverse and exciting art scenes in the world, but it’s not always easy to navigate your way through this vast city and to understand the complexities of its extraordinary art world. Walking into an auction house or gallery when you don’t have a million to spend on a masterpiece can be a tad intimidating, but this need not be the case. Plum Guide’s art world expert Georgia Spray works for one of London’s leading private art dealers, and has insider experience of Christie’s auction house and the renowned White Cube gallery. As the founder of Partnership Editions, Georgia also collaborates with a selection of the most exciting up-and-coming artists to create affordable limited edition artworks for emerging collectors. In this guide to the London art scene, Georgia explains how you can unlock the best free exhibitions, buy affordable art, and rub shoulders with artists, dealers and seasoned critics – often over a free glass of wine…
Commercial Art Galleries
Prices for art in commercial galleries are undeniably steep, and in London works usually start at around £2,000. However, don’t feel you have to pretend to be the next big client to go in – entry is free, and the knowledgeable gallery assistants are usually happy to answer your questions. First of all, make sure you ask for a press release as this will give you a good overview of the art on display. Here’s an outline of some of my favourite galleries across the London art scene, but bear in mind that it’s also worth simply wandering the streets of Mayfair and popping into as many galleries as you like. Heads up: many commercial galleries are closed on Mondays). Want to completely immerse yourself in the London art scene? A stay in one of our homes like The House of Art should do the trick.
White Cube, Bermondsey
Stepping inside this huge warehouse in Bermondsey, you wouldn’t know that you were in a commercial gallery and that the art was for sale. The dramatic minimalist corridor leads you to vast galleries where some of the most famous contemporary artists are represented and exhibited such as Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Jake and Dinos Chapman (Jay Jopling, the founder, championed the ‘Young British Artists’). The name White Cube not only references their minimalist, white-wall aesthetic but could also be a reference to a sugar cube - a clever nod to The Tate Gallery, founded with a bequest from 19th century sugar magnate Henry Tate.
Thaddeus Ropac, Mayfair
Thaddeus Ropac opened earlier this year and made quite an impact in the art world. This Mayfair mansion was previously home to the Duke of Ely, who apparently had a very healthy wine cellar in the vaulted basement below! Unlike many contemporary galleries today, which have a penchant for white-walled minimalism, this gallery has retained its Regency decadence with sweeping staircases and the five floors of rooms have an almost palatial feel to them. Standing in stark contrast to the traditional building, contemporary works by artists including Anish Kapoor, Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer fill the spaces – exploring the gallery is like a treasure hunt. Even if you don’t have a clue about the artists on exhibition, it’s worth a visit to see the beautiful gallery space alone.
Thaddeus Ropac Gallery, © Oliver Beer
Victoria Miro, Old Street
Victoria Miro has her more commercial space in Mayfair where most of the selling takes place, but her space in Old Street is among the most experimental on the London art scene. Tucked away behind a drive-through McDonald's (post-art Big Mac?) and with a door that’s not the easiest to find (keep your eyes peeled for the entry buzzer), you would never expect to find the beautiful space that reveals itself here. Climb a set of steep white steps and you’ll arrive at a room with an incredible view of London – filled, of course, with amazing art. Miro represents artists like the polka-dot obsessed Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama; and the cross-dressing potter, Grayson Perry. Make sure to check out the second gallery space, which is accessed through an exotic garden – winter sun unfortunately not guaranteed.
Public and Private Collections
Zabludowicz Collection, Camden
The private art collection of Finnish art collectors and patrons Anita and Poju Zabludowicz is housed in an old church in Camden. The focus here is on experimental contemporary art, often with a performative element. Last time I visited, nude women covered in paint danced on podiums and imprinted their bodies on the walls (taking casual Fridays to a new level). Given the unconventional space, The Zabludowicz Collection often commissions artists to make site-specific work, and its curators explore cutting-edge themes. They often host talks and free curator-led tours at the weekend, so if performance art sounds intimidating, their lovely and approachable staff can tell you what the hell is going on!
Zabludowicz Collection, ©Zabludowicz Collection
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square
While it’s not exactly the best-kept secret of the London art scene, the National Gallery’s blockbuster temporary exhibitions mean that the institution’s incredible permanent collection is often overlooked by visitors. The Sainsbury Wing holds some of the most extraordinary Renaissance masterpieces by Botticelli, Uccello, Van Eyck and Caravaggio. It’s free to get in and, unlike many of the world’s leading museums, the crowds aren’t usually claustrophobia inducing. I love to pop in even for ten minutes when en route to the theatre and just sit in front of one work. You can go back as many times as you like and avoid the heavy ‘museum legs’ you might suffer if you try to tackle it all in one go. Stay nearby in one of our wonderful homes like Areca Grand.
Royal Academy Summer Exhibition
Every year the famous RA Summer Exhibition houses a salon-style show with paintings hung from floor to ceiling. The artists responsible range from students to the biggest names in art. Works are for sale, with some proceeds going to support the galleries and Royal Academy Schools. It’s a great way to pick up affordable art by the great artists of the future.
Art auctions are a great spectacle that many people don’t make the most of. Perhaps everyone is afraid they’ll scratch their head and accidentally bid on a Warhol? Christie’s and Sotheby’s are the major auction houses and almost always have something on view to the public or a live auction. This is a great opportunity to see masterpieces that may have been stored in an oligarch’s safe for years. Glimpse them here before they disappear again into private hands for decades. Also, be sure to check out Phillips auction house in Berkeley Square. You might be able to find more affordable work in their print sales. If you want to snap up a bargain you can sometimes make after-sale offers on works that didn’t sell during the auction (you could get the work at around 20% off the catalogue price or at the reserve).
Whatever time of year you’re visiting London, there is bound to be an art fair of some kind on. Check online, but they are mostly from Wednesday (opening night) to Sunday. You usually have to pay a small entry fee, but it’s a great outing and a good way to check out hundreds of galleries under one roof. My favourite fairs are at Somerset House, which offers the most relaxed art fair experience. My personal favourite is 1:54 Fair which focuses on contemporary art from Africa (the name signifies the 1 African continent and its 54 countries). Given that this is an emerging market, prices for artworks start from around £800 – although admittedly not cheap, it’s a lot more affordable than Frieze.
1:54 Fair, ©Victor Raison
Commercial art galleries tend to launch their latest exhibitions with a ‘Private View’ party. Despite the elitism suggested by the name, these are in fact open to the public and are a great alternative to going to the pub with your friends on a Thursday evening. While you may need to be ‘in the know’ to spot which gallery and which evening they are on, if you are in Mayfair on a Thursday evening from 6:30pm onwards, you are bound to happen across one. The other way to keep updated is to sign up to art gallery newsletters before your visit. As a bonus, galleries usually serve free wine or beer at these events and there’s a great buzz as the the shows fill with art students, professionals and other art (and/or free wine) enthusiasts.
If you are visiting London in May-June then this is a great opportunity to visit the degree shows held by the city’s leading art schools. The best are Central St Martins, Slade, Royal College of Art and the Royal Academy. This is where I source a lot of artists for Partnership Editions and it’s a great way to meet and discover the talent of the future. You can also buy the works – if they haven’t already sold to Charles Saatchi, that is.
Before your trip to London it’s a great idea to follow the many galleries, auction houses and artists on Instagram. Here is a guide to some of my favourite London art world instagrammers to get you in the mood for your visit:
A non-profit contemporary arts organization in Clapham – Studio Voltaire's gallery may be slightly out of the way, depending on where you're staying, so if you can’t make it to their space make sure to follow them on Instagram to see what they’re up to. They also create limited edition artworks that are often affordable (by art world standards, at least).
Simon de Pury
Ex-head of Phillips auction house and now an art dealer and general international art scenester, Simon de Pury invites you to see what goes on behind the scenes of the most elite art parties and to find out about must-see exhibitions
Admittedly a slightly biased choice (being one of Partnership Editions’ resident artists) but this Stoke Newington -based artist is prolific on Instagram – posting live updates from his studio as well as tuning us into his life as an art director for fashion brands such as Paul Smith.
And last but not least… Georgia Spray
I post about the world of Contemporary African art – as well as being a passion of mine, I help clients to buy art from this emerging sector of the market.
Here you can find daily updates of art available on the platform as well as takeovers by the artists I work with. There are also interior design ideas for how to live with art.