Above: South London Gallery. Photo: Andy Stagg.
SOUTH LONDON GALLERY
65-67 Peckham Road, London, SE5 8UH
82 Peckham Road, London, SE15 5LQ
Nestled between two of the most diverse but underprivileged neighbourhoods in London, a passer-by will come across the understatedly vibrant South London Gallery almost without realising. Her younger sister, the Fire Station, set back sleepily across the road is encircled by overhanging Plane trees standing as sentries protecting the hush of its artistic hubbub. They are almost an arterial valve through which creativity flows, from Camberwell to Peckham as nearby is the Camberwell College of Art, and further along to the east stands a peppering of contemporary galleries.
South London Gallery, originally known as the South London Fine Art Gallery (and is still registered as such under the Charity Commission), was founded in 1891 by philanthropist William Rossiter with the intention to “bring art to the people of South London”. This he successfully did, and the Gallery has since been deeply rooted in local community engagement, outreach, and education programmes.
The gallery was used for government offices during WWI and WWII, and was closed to the public during these tempestuous times. Re-opening in 1949, the gallery continued to focus on temporary art exhibitions, supplemented by the Gallery’s own permanent art collection. Originally, the gallery’s selection of works on display had been loaned or donated by private collectors and artists. This model changed at the turn of the 20th century when a structured programme of temporary exhibitions was introduced, and the gallery began its ample acquisition of pieces. Today the collection comprises almost 5,000 paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, ceramics, coins and textile. Most recently, the gallery acquired works by Antony Gormley, Damien Hirst, and Sarah Lucas to name a few, shining a light on the organisation’s emphasis on home-grown artistic talent.
David Thorp’s directorship from 1992 accelerated the gallery’s entry into the 21st century as a heavy-hitter in the art world, becoming a beacon for London-based British talent: it was the first venue for the showing of Tracey Emin's "tent", Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995, when Carl Freedman curated the Minky Manky show in 1995. South London Gallery had made its mark in the world, and it was here to stay.
Since 2001, the gallery has been in the directorial hands of Margot Heller (OBE). She has been responsible for the institution’s expansion literally and figuratively on a national and international scale. During her tenure, its footprint has quadrupled, and annual visitor figures have increased sevenfold. A graduate of other directorial and curatorial positions at Southampton City Art Gallery, the now-defunct Anthony d’Offay Gallery, and Hayward Gallery, Margot Heller has spear-headed revolutionary programming over the past two decades and shows no signs of slowing down having secured Art Fund’s Museum of the Year award at the beginning of this year.
Under her stewardship, the gallery has undergone important development since it became an independent, charitable trust in 2003. Untethered from the strings of Borough funding, the Gallery’s first phase of expansion was completed in 2004 when architects Stanton Williams and the artist Ori Gersht designed and built the gallery’s first dedicated education space while also improving visitor accessibility across the building.
By 2010, the gallery’s second phase was finished in a note-worthy renovation of the overall spaces. The masterminds behind the redesign, 6a Architects, enlarged the space by converting the derelict neighbouring 3-storey house into what is now known as the Matsudaira Wing.
This provided the site with much needed space in the form of additional galleries, a bookshop, a vibrant cafe-restaurant hotspot, and a double-heights events space that leads a meandering visitor out to a peaceful, inner city oasis, known as the Fox Garden.
The Clore Studio became a subsequent addition soon after, providing a versatile space accommodating a variety of functions from education workshops, to talks, film screenings, and private hires. Most recently, the gallery rolled out its final phase of expansion in the acquisition and reconditioning of the Fire House, finally opening to the public in September 2018.
Needless to say, not only have these extensions provided beautiful, welcoming spaces for visitors and staff alike, but also steady revenue for a gallery that now is wholly self-sustained. The gallery subsists itself largely from charitable operations, gaining just over half its annual revenue from this financial stream. This enables South London Gallery to establish valuable partnerships and co-creations both locally and internationally to enrich both its artistic and educational programmes.
Most notable as a co-creative partnership has been the gallery’s collaboration with Mexican artist Gabriel Orozco and the Royal Botanic Gardens to transform their previous wasteland of a backyard into the dynamic, ever-flowing Orozco Garden. It is a visually important space for visitors and, significantly, it provides a gateway from the adjoining housing estate for both adults and children who can enter and visit not just the garden but the gallery too at their leisure, making this a gallery that all people can - and deserve to enjoy. The space is also a treat of floral delights for any professional or budding horticulturist out there who can enjoy a vast range of plants, trees, and shrubbery specially selected by the teams of Kew Gardens, London.
Covid-19 has naturally impacted South London Gallery, much like it has everyone world-wide, but that doesn’t mean it has stopped the gallery from adapting and charging ahead with equal measures of chutzpah and resolve.
Currently on show is Belgian artist Ann Veronica Janssens’ Hot Pink Turquoise, a two-part exhibition and her first major presentation in London. Now in its second act (the first ran earlier in the summer, the centerpiece being her Untitled (Blue Glitter) (2015) – an arresting splash of turquoise glitter puddled across the floor of the Gallery’s main room in a cross between painting and sculpture), it is a mixture of interactive installations and standalone sculptural pieces, colour-drenched tools for an exploration of perception and self-reflection. This time, the visitor is encouraged to interact with her Bikes (2001) in the main room, each of which is entirely, exquisitely chrome-plated with reflective aluminium wheel caps that, in the evenings in particular, throw off flashes and glints and glimmers from floor to wall as the rider travels across the room with youthful glee.
In the Fire House, we find her light installations and sculptural pieces, a personal favourite being the fantastic-terrific containers of water and paraffin that alone and from afar appear inconspicuous enough, but on closer inspection come across as universes separated by the thinnest sliver of gold, serving as a reminder of one’s own tiny existence in these constellations of stars we call our galaxy.
To satiate hunger, Crane’s Kitchen in the Main Building is a must. It follows British cuisine’s current direction by assembling colourful plate creations featuring local, seasonal produce, and it won’t break the bank either.
The gallery is currently closed and set to reopen on December 3rd. It is completely sanitised and arranged in line with government guidelines on Covid-19. You must book a slot before arrival, which can easily be done via their website. Entry is free, and the gallery will be open according to requirements. The gallery is completely accessible for visitors with elevators and ramps in both buildings, as well as material for the visually impaired and hard of hearing.
A visitor to this area would be just as quickly able to immerse themselves in south London’s art scene as they would be to find some of the best West African egusi dishes in town, and the South London Gallery is certainly not a venue to be missed – a real taste of London in the 21st century.
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An adland veteran, Beatriz is currently transitioning to the cultural sector and studying for her PGCert in Museums & Galleries Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths (London, UK). Her particular areas of interest are in museum partnerships and co-creations, and exploring ways in which to better the visitor experience from a perspective of accessibility and interpretation.
You can find her on Twitter, and LinkedIn talking about art, innovation, and collaboration. Pronouns are she/ her.