Nick Hackworth

Cork Street is reclaiming its place at the center of London’s art ecosystem

Essays & Reviews Art Basel

Despite inventing modernity, the British, famously, weren’t terribly keen on Modernism. Violently transforming the world through colonialism, industrialization, and capitalism was one thing but, for polite British society, trying one’s hand at abstraction was taking things a little too far. Equestrian painter and president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Sir Alfred Munnings, exemplified this spirit at his 1949 retirement banquet. In the course of his speech – which was broadcast live on BBC Radio and, by all accounts, well lubricated by sherry and champagne – Munnings complained that he found himself ‘president of a body of men who are what I call “shilly-shallying.” They feel there is something in this so-called Modern art…Not so long ago, I spoke in this room to the students, and....I said to those students, “If you paint a tree, for God’s sake try and make it look like a tree!’”

Sadly for Munnings, the future of art, even in Britain, ultimately belonged to the Modern artists he so despised with their perverse tendency, as he saw it, to ‘bewilder and daze’ the viewer. That a culture of Modern Art took root and survived, albeit on a modest scale in 20th century Britain, owes almost everything to the clutch of adventurous gallerists who, over successive decades from the 1920s onwards, set up shop on the Royal Academy’s doorstep on Cork Street and its immediate environs and, thanks to a spectacular succession of art-historical firsts, introduced Modernism, with its attendant spectacles and discourses, to these shores.

Pioneers such as London Gallery, Mayor Gallery, and Redfern Gallery gave London debuts to artists including Alexander Calder, Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Fernand Léger, Joan Miró, and Piet Mondrian whilst also fostering the homegrown talents of Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, and Ben Nicholson. Tens of thousands saw André Breton’s sensational, pop-up ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ of 1936 at the New Burlington Galleries, with its array of masterpieces by Jean Arp, Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Pablo Picasso, and Francis Picabia, among others, whilst the lucky opening attendees were served Surrealist drinks by poet Dylan Thomas and received a lecture from Dalí in a diving suit.

Even Peggy Guggenheim makes a cameo: despite her gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, only remaining open for a year and half until the outbreak of war in 1939, she gave Wassily Kandinsky his first London outing on the advice of Marcel Duchamp. In the late 1950s, Waddington Galleries emerged as a new force, championing major British and American Abstract and Pop artists, while Bernard Jacobson opened his gallery in 1969, at the height of the counterculture movement: both spaces evolved into blue-chip powerhouses. However, with the notable exception of Victoria Miro, who launched her gallery there in the mid-1980s, Cork Street’s importance as a locus of challenging new art waned. The area’s radical heritage faded into the background, replaced by a sleepy gentility.

Now the wheel has turned again, and East Mayfair is reemerging as a center of the London art world. Whilst Hauser & Wirth opened their flagship London space on Savile Row back in 2010, bringing all its heft and significance with it, much of the recent rise in the area’s art-world energy is due to the sophisticated planning of The Pollen Estate, who have owned large swathes of Mayfair since the 17th century. Their aim – in the words of its director Jenny Casebourne – is to ‘preserve Cork Street as the spiritual home of Modern and contemporary art.’ With two major developments on either side of the street to create fit-for-purpose, contemporary art spaces, ‘Pollen has played the long game to ensure we encouraged some of the best names in the business to the street,’ she continues. Goodman Gallery, hailing originally from South Africa, were the first, in 2019, to move into a new space, setting an appropriately high cultural bar for this fresh wave of Cork Street galleries. They were followed by Frieze, who, in collaboration with Pollen, launched an exhibition space for out-of-town galleries at No.9 Cork Street. This process is reaching an apogee this month with no fewer than four galleries launching major new spaces in the area: Stephen Friedman, Alison Jacques, and Tiwani Contemporary are all opening on Cork Street, whilst Pilar Corrias is inaugurating another, spectacular new space (not part of The Pollen Estate) on the corner of Conduit Street and Savile Row.

The quality of the buildings available, with their high ceilings and expansive volumes, has been a critical attraction, fulfilling pent-up demand for spaces comparable to those more commonly found in New York. Both Jacques and Corrias talk of substantial ceiling heights as a must; for Friedman, the move around the corner from his gallery of 27 years on Old Burlington Street to 5-6 Cork Street has allowed a thorough design process and a new outdoor space. ‘We are especially excited about our new sculpture garden, which will be open to our entire Mayfair community,’ he says.

Beyond the promise of practical and commercial potential, each of these openings is underscored by the journeys taken by each gallerist and enriched by their acute sense of stepping into the area’s rich history.

For Jacques, who just opened a 557 m2 space at 22 Cork Street, the journey has been a deeply personal one. ‘Cork Street has a lot of memories for me. I began my foray into the contemporary art world working at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in the early 1990s. Peggy opened her gallery at 30 Cork Street in 1938, and it has always been my dream to try to open a space here. I then learned the gallery trade with Leslie Waddington in the mid 1990s. He was witty, erudite, and principled and I have never forgotten his mentorship. It’s taken nearly 30 years to get to Cork Street: My only regret is that Leslie is not here to continue to learn from. He was a true connoisseur.’

Corrias, meanwhile, is launching her flagship space at 51 Conduit Street, on the 15th anniversary of the gallery’s founding, with a solo show by US painter Christina Quarles, one of the gallery’s ascending stars. ‘She’s really grown up with the gallery, so it made sense to open with Christina as she represents the identity of the gallery,’ explains Corrias. Alongside the Quarles show, Corrias has also, in a celebratory gesture, commissioned a new chandelier by Philippe Parreno with whom she opened her first gallery in Fitzrovia in 2008.

Joining this distinguished company is Tiwani Contemporary, who are taking up residence at 24 Cork Street, becoming the youngest gallery on the block. For Tiwani Contemporary, who focus on representing artists from Africa and its diasporas, the move follows the opening of their Lagos gallery last year. Aesthetically and symbolically linking the Lagos and London spaces are the specially commissioned furniture pieces by Nigerian designer Nifemi Marcus-Bello, which feature in both.

Tiwani Contemporary’s first show in Cork Street will be a solo presentation by British-Nigerian artist Joy Labinjo, featuring a new series of large-scale, dynamic and joyful paintings of family groups and friends at leisure. Labinjo, who grew up in London, also inaugurated Tiwani Contemporary’s Lagos space in what was her first showing in Nigeria. The gallery’s founder, Maria Varnava, is a Greek Cypriot who grew up in Lagos until she was eleven. Reflecting on her and Labinjo’s respective histories, Varnava notes the nuances of contemporary identities, their complex relationships to place – and the enduring power of galleries as platforms and meeting places for such rich interconnections. Circling back to Cork Street, she notes: ‘It has survived everything from the Second World War to the pandemic. It is very exciting to see this street coming back to life and being such an important part of the London art ecosystem.’