Just around the back of Belsize Park tube station is a small row of homes that became home to some of London’s leading artists in the 1930s — and now an exhibition is telling their story.
If you were to produce a list of recognisable names of the time, many of them lived in this small patch of North London.
Barbara Hepworth, Piet Mondrian, Henry Moore, Nau, Gabo, Cecil Stephenson
All moved into a row of studios, originally built in 1872 and funded by the subscriptions of a group of artists, some of whom lived nearby, as an alternative to the big west-end galleries. However, in the late 1920s, the large homes were chopped up into smaller live-work studios and rented out to become home to many of the people involved in the development of Modern British Art.
Their story is now being told at the Isokon Flats Gallery, another modernist marvel just around the corner from the Mall Studios.
It’s mainly a display board exhibition, focusing on a number of the key figures in the movement who lived at the studios, such as the painter Ben Nicholson, who was later to marry Barbara Hepworth in 1931, and details of their family life.
The art critic, Herbert Read living just down the lane, and the display notes a moment shortly after he moved in and had hung a painting above the mantlepiece. He returned one day with a cork mat covered in red paint and slapped it above the painting, declaring that there had been too much empty space above the painting.
Someone who didn’t live in the Mall Studios, but right next to them, was Piet Mondrian, who promptly painted his entire room in the style of his primary colour artworks. You literally walked into a painting.
A number of the artists also visited the nearby Isokon Flats, themselves a hub of artists and writers, often attending the flat’s dining club.
The exhibition is small, but also free, and if you’ve never been to the Isokon Flats, or the gallery telling the story of the building, then you really should pay a visit at least once in your life.
The gallery is open at weekends only from 11am to 4pm and is free to visit.
New this year, occasionally, one of the residents of the flats opens their doors to let you see inside the restored interior. You need to keep an eye on their Twitter account as they advertise it there and not on their website.
Once you’ve visited the exhibition, pay a visit to the Mall Studios themselves – well to the gate at the end of the row, as it’s private housing today — and soak up some of the lingering miasma of modernism.