Running a contemporary gallery is tough: we look at London’s lost commercial art spaces

The experimental Signals Gallery lasted just two years in the mid 1960s © Clay Perry, England & Co Gallery, London

London has never had so many commercial art galleries as in the past decade, but the cycle of life and death is brutal, and the most experimental are often the shortest lived. If not killed off by economic pressures, contemporary galleries often struggle to live past the particular moment in which they were born and, if they do, dwindle with the death or retirement of their founder. The Second World War, too, interrupted a burgeoning avant-garde scene, causing the demise of the collector Peggy Guggenheims gallery, which is the subject of an exhibition opening this week at Ordovas gallery (until 14 December). Many galleries have come and gone; here, we present a small selection that have made an impact on the citys art scene.

Guggenheim Jeune

On the eve of the Second World War, the more experimental galleries of Mayfairs Cork Street embraced European artists of the avant-garde at a time when the stuffier establishment shunned them. In 1938, two years after the ground-breaking International Surrealist Exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries (the building is now Cecconis restaurant), Peggy Guggenheim opened her own gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, in a former pawnbrokers shop just around the corner at 30 Cork Street. It closed just 18 months later, in June 1939, and the building was bombed in the Blitz. But in the gallerys short life—and with Marcel Duchamp as an adviser—it held 20 exhibitions of abstract and Surrealist works, including the first UK shows of Kandinsky and Yves Tanguy. Its Childrens Drawing exhibition included works by a 15-year-old Lucian Freud and Guggenheims daughter. Guggenheim closed the gallery, intending to open her own museum of Modern art with the historian Herbert Read as director, in autumn 1939. Were it not for the Second World War, the Peggy Guggenheim Collection could have been in London, not Venice.

Peggy Guggenheims plans to open a museum of Modern art, with Herbert Read at the helm, were shelved; her previous gallery held 20 shows in just 18 months © IMEC; Fonds MCC; Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Gisèle Freund; © ARS; NY and DACS; London 2019 / Yves Tanguy; The Sun in Its Jewel Case; 1937

Tooths and Alex Reid & Lefevre

From the 1920s to the 1960s, side-by-side on Bruton Street in Mayfair sat two galleries: Arthur Tooth & Sons, which showed Stanley Spencer, Augustus John and major Impressionists; and Alex Reid & Lefevre, two former rivals who amalgamated in 1926, the year before Lefevre died. Reid had shared a flat in Paris with Vincent van Gogh in the late 19th century and was painted three times by him. The gallery sold 15 Van Gogh paintings, represented L.S. Lowry and Edward Burra, and held exhibitions of Degas, Monet, Picasso, Henry Moore and Georgia OKeeffe among others. In its heyday, the gallery sold works to Paul Mellon, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and Londons Tate and National Gallery. But it could not last forever. “After 9/11 the climate for art dealing looked bleak and the rent on the building became prohibitive,” says the dealer Martin Summers, who worked first at Tooths and then at Lefevre from 1967 until its closure in 2002.

Barbara Hepworth with Head (Elegy, 1952) at Alex Reid & Lefevre in 1952 © Hepworth Estate. Photo: Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo

Indica and Signals

A few years ago, Yoko Onos car pulled up outside the Masons Yard gallery now home to the works-on-paper dealer Stephen Ongpin. She wanted to reminisce as this was where, in 1966, she met John Lennon as she prepared her show at what was then the Indica Gallery. This counterculture space, the epitome of the Swinging Sixties, was opened by Barry Miles and John Dunbar in 1965 but shut just two years later. During Indicas short run, it challenged Londons still conservative tastes with shows of Takis, Jesús Rafael Soto and Mark Boyle (aka the Boyle Family). But while everyone who was anyone came to Indicas parties, it barely sold a thing. Many progressive 1960s galleries died young, driven more by ideology than the bottom line. Another was Signals London (1964-66), an experimental interdisciplinary space on Wigmore Street, founded by the artists David Medalla, Gustav Metzger and Marcello Salvadori, which presented works by artists from the US, Europe, Asia and Latin America, including Hélio Oiticica and Mira Schendel.

Preparing for Lygia Clarks 1965 Signals show © Clay Perry. Courtesy England & Co Gallery, London

Gallery One and John Kasmin

Gallery One, described by the dealer John Kasmin as “two rooms lined with hessian, sackcloth”, was run by the poet and curator Victor Musgrave from 1953 to 1963, first on Litchfield Street, later moving to DArblay Street in Soho, and then to Mayfair. Musgrave gave Yves Klein his first UK show, Bridget Riley her first solo exhibition and introduced Fluxus and Kinetic art to a London audience. He also championed artists from South Asia: F.N. Souza had his first UK exhibition—a sell-out—there in 1955 and the 1958 show Seven Indian Painters in Europe included Souza, M.F. Husain, Avinash Chandra and Anwar Jalal Shemza. A young Kasmin worked for Musgrave before opening his own gallery in 1963 at 118 New Bond Street, a big white space—unusual at the time—enabled by the financial backing of Sheridan Dufferin, fifth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava. Kasmin is best-remembered for giving David Hockney his first one-man show, but he also represented Frank Stella and Anthony Caro. As the painter Gillian Ayres sRead More – Source