The rise of the East End art scene

Some 300 years after domestic decorators and portraitists filled the area, the low rents of bomb-scarred EC1 made it a haven for artistic endeavour among our bright young things

  • The rise of the East End art scene

    Young British Artists, including Damien Hirst, staged 'Freeze' in the Docklands in 1988 (image © Rob Greig)

  • There is often nothing much to an East End art gallery. An unassuming door with a small silver plaque above a buzzer is sometimes the only indication that an old shopfront or some rusty garage doors could actually be hiding a veritable cocoon of contemporary creation. For much of the week, the lights stay off while the proprietors of the more shoestring, homespun operations work their other thankless day jobs, but at weekends and on opening nights, these out-of-the-way venues come to life.

    All great art capitals need incubators in which young artists can experiment, thrive and, of course, fail. The turnover of independent galleries, studios and artist-run spaces is unsurprisingly high in London, given the volatile nature of art’s passing waves of popularity and changing tastes (not to mention the average artist’s wage of £400 a week), but this precariousness is what makes a glimpse into the East End art scene such an invigorating experience. What is there today won’t necessarily be there tomorrow, and that doesn’t just refer to the shifting displays of every artistic material, shape, colour and form imaginable, but applies to the galleries housing these temporary exhibitions and the artists making them.

    There is a very real danger that none of London’s art will be made or exhibited in the area in, say, 25 years’ time, even though it currently houses the biggest concentration of artists in Europe, numbering some 10,000. Although artists are undoubtedly the most important part of the food chain in any thriving art scene, the centre of the commercial art world has always been the West End and Mayfair. While the west signifies collecting cash and passing trade, the east is often associated with the very worthy, but ultimately frustrating and opposite geographic phenomena. Yet the capital’s Orient is booming. In fact, the current popularity of east London and the influx of media businesses, estate agents and Olympic stadia that is threatening to drive out the artistic community is largely the fault of those pioneering artists and galleries that colonised the boroughs of Hackney, Islington and Tower Hamlets in the first place.

    Arguably, artists first populated the postcodes of EC1 and N1, now Clerkenwell and Shoreditch, 300 years ago. The medieval parish of St Giles-without-Cripplegate, for example, housed craftsmen belonging to artistic guilds or livery companies and only members of the Painter-Stainers’ Company could pursue employment as ‘Face Painters [portraitists], History Painters, Arms [heraldic] Painters or House Painters [domestic decorators]’.

    Fast-forward to modern times and it was two abstract painters, Peter Sedgley and the now world-famous Bridget Riley, who set up the legendary SPACE studios in disused riverside warehouses by St Katherine’s Dock in 1968. This was apparently in response to the billboard-sized paintings by Americans such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko that were beginning to filter across the Atlantic (first shown at Aldgate’s venerable Whitechapel Gallery around 1960), which prompted British artists to start thinking bigger and beyond the easel.

    The giant warehouses and light-industrial buildings that sprang up in the voids left by the Blitz provided the perfect raw-architectural environment for the scale and aesthetic of the work by a new generation of Young British Artists, whose leader-elect, Damien Hirst, staged their first landmark show ‘Freeze’ in the Docklands in 1988. There was no shortage of affordable live/work spaces in the East End at the time, and it was the settlement of artists such as Gilbert and George in Fournier Street and Helen Chadwick in the colony of old workers’ cottages in Beck Road, which really cemented the area’s artistic reputation. Another of the Beck Road tenants, Maureen Paley, also became one of the area’s first serious gallerists, setting up Interim Art in her front room in 1984.

    It wasn’t until the early 1990s that Hoxton Square became the focus of the growing East End art scene after one of the YBAs, painter Gary Hume, bought up some property alongside the studio of an unknown fashion designer, Alexander McQueen. In 1993, brilliant young curator Joshua Compston (who died three years later aged just 25) staged the first annual ‘Fête Worse than Death’ in a massive marquee on the grass there, with entertainment including a Beijing opera, a pubic-hair exchange and Tracey Emin reading palms. Since the YBA’s favoured dealer Jay Jopling opened his gleaming White Cube emporium on the square in 2001, this historically, lowly, crime-ridden square – originally known as Hogsdon in Domesday times on account of the pigs kept there – has become achingly cool and the centre of more than just the art scene.

    In their ever-increasing search for cheaper housing and studios, the artists have since headed further east into Hackney, Stepney and Mile End. In this flight from the gentrification of Shoreditch, a new artistic hub has emerged on Vyner Street in the neighbourhood of Bethnal Green, previously home to Hugenot weavers, Jewish refugees and now the Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Bengali communities. The ever-changing conurbation of galleries and studios in Vyner Street’s industrial sheds feels less like a district of commercial showrooms and more like a collective of art laboratories. The spirit of co-operation and camaraderie feels like the East End art scene of old. You just have to get past the door.

    Time Out First Thursdays

    On the first Thursday of every month the galleries and museums of East London open their doors late for a chance to see amazing art, culture and events after hours. With something on at more than 80 galleries and museums until 9pm on Time Out First Thursdays there will always be something free and exciting to see. Click here to visit the official site.

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