There’s no shortage of venues to see art in London – from imposing major spaces such as Tate Britain and Tate Modern to East End galleries clustered around Shoreditch and Bethnal Green. But not all galleries are purpose-built white cubes or in central locations. Gallerists, like artists, are creative and enterprising people (many are or were artists themselves), so if there’s a vacant shop, an empty office or a disused basement it’s likely to be taken over and used to host exhibitions and events. These spaces may be off the beaten track, hidden from view and sometimes temporary but they’re well worth seeking out as they’ll often be showing art and artists that you won’t see anywhere else.
Secret galleries in London
Located on Platform One of Hackney Downs railway station Banner Repeater must be London's only art venue with a train service that can deliver visitors directly to the gallery door. Founded by Ami Clarke in 2009 this enterprising project space focuses on displays of text-based works and printed materials, alongside an accompanying programme of talks and discussions.
Cabinet has been a fixture on the scene for 20 years, moving from Brixton and Farringdon to its current spot on Old Street. But, despite being a favourite of heavyweight curators for showing great artists like Enrico David and Mark Leckey, it keeps a low-key public profile. Subscribing on their website is the best way to find out about upcoming exhibitions and events but don't expect to receive much more than an artist's name and a set of dates.
Between 1822 and 1854, the crypt beneath St Pancras Church was used to bury departed Londoners, but since 2002 its atmospheric underground arches and alcoves have hosted an ongoing programme of curated contemporary art exhibitions and events, from large-scale sound installations to a group show on the nature of drawing and even an alternative Christmas grotto. If you get the feeling that you're not alone down there, you're right – the space still houses the interred remains of its 557 original occupants.
There’s a venerable tradition of London gallerists showing art chez eux, beginning with East End pioneer Maureen Paley, whose gallery started life in her terraced house in Hackney in 1984. Danielle Arnaud has hosted exhibitions in her Georgian townhouse in Kennington – an area largely unburdened by art-world attention – since the mid-1990s. The chance to wander round elegant, furnished rooms makes looking at art here a more casual affair than the usual white cube experience. The surroundings are so pleasant, mind, that you may not wish to leave.
In hip artworld slang a gallop is defined as a ‘fast-paced gallery and shop space’. Launched in July 2011 Large Glass (named after a Duchamp artwork) certainly fits the bill having already featured curated displays of artworks and artefacts by Franz West, Richard Wentworth, Susan Collis and others, alongside regular talks plus events that combine different artforms with culinary delights such as tastings and themed dinners.
This abandoned cop shop in deepest Deptford provides unique DIY spaces for artists to show and make art, from the original tiled cells (complete with latrines) that are used as intimate galleries, to the shipping containers in the courtyard that house busy studios and a small artist-run exhibition venue called Cartel. The Old Bill’s former mess hall has now become the official watering hole for south London’s new after-hours gallery gatherings on the last Friday of every month (Slam Fridays), because, frankly, what kind of cultural evening out would be complete without an overnight spell in the nick?
Situated between Vyner Street and the Andrews Road gallery enclave, this Mare Street curiosity shop is both on the art circuit and determinedly off any beaten track. Peek through the windows and you’ll see a world in which velvet-cloaked Victorians, or perhaps The Mighty Boosh, might reside. Entering the shop, which is also the spiritual home of the esoterically minded Last Tuesday Society, reveals a wunderkammer of shells, skulls, taxidermy specimens and assorted oddities. Art gets a designated space in the first-floor gallery but, unsurprisingly, shows tend towards the eerily surreal.