A South Kensington building that looks like a posh hotel is in fact a collection of art galleries — and it’s freely open to the public.
This is Cromwell Place, and it’s a new idea in how to show off and sell art.
Rather than dealers having a dedicated gallery somewhere in Mayfair or St James, they can use rooms in this building for a few weeks or months as needed. Here, a series of early 19th-century buildings all interlinked now give the dealers a range of different spaces to use. From a small space that was supposed to be a meeting room, to large spaces occupying most of a floor.
With 14 large rooms, it’s a sort of market for art, but done in a style that gets away from the classic art exhibitions that can often see dealers given uniform boxes in conference centres.
The idea for this art-hub dates back to 2016, when the landlords put forward plans to revamp the main buildings, and several behind into a large art estate filled with galleries. Although the area is a cultural hub thanks to the museums and educational institutions, it’s surprisingly lacking in art galleries.
So a row of grand early 19-century buildings that were originally grand homes, then as with many, chopped up into offices and flats, has been converted into a venue to show off art.
Entry is free, and at the moment, needs booking in advance, but once you arrive, a small leaflet is offered to show you who and what is here today, and then you’re free to wander around this converted row of houses popping into former dining rooms and bedrooms to see the art.
At the moment, it’s very white in here, although they can repaint rooms as needed, and indeed did for their original short-lived opening last year, but right now, white dominates.
It really is a bit like wandering around the streets of Mayfair or St James, but entirely indoors, and as the weather on my visit was very English, that is a good thing. And all without that slightly forbidding feeling of pushing open posh gallery doors to go inside – here the rooms are open to amble around.
Much of the thinking behind the development comes from rising rents elsewhere, which were pushing dealers off the main roads with big windows, so why not bring a load of them together into one big cluster of buildings. It gets away from crippling retail rents, and gives the dealers a lot more flexibility in how to display their collections.
Dealers can rotate their displays around the building, and while there are themed exhibitions — Abu Dhabi Art next month — it’s mostly what the dealers want to show for a few weeks here or there. So one moment we’re looking at camera obscura prints from Black Box Projects then downstairs to John Martin Gallery for abstract, followed by Vigo with large blocks of colour.
It’s anything from old masters to modern art.
While it’s fairly new and not that well known at the moment, it will become better known later this year. That’s because around the back is a modern gallery space added into the former yard, and that’s going to be hosting the National Portrait Gallery’s Portrait Prize exhibition from November.
That new gallery sits on top of a deep basement that includes private viewing rooms for the dealers to show off to special clients. A reminder that while the main spaces are open to the public, Cromwell Place’s main function is to make selling art easier for the dealers. They even have a customs license to allow the Temporary Admission of art into the UK deferring the import tax, so long as the art doesn’t leave the building, and the tax still has to be paid if it’s sold.
One space that’s still waiting to be finished off is next door at Number 5, where the painter, Sir John Lavery lived. It’s a building with a remarkable top floor painting studio that has not only what’s thought to be Europe’s largest original sash window, but the roof has a massive Thunderbirds- style trapdoor that used to open to reveal a skylight. The skylight has gone, but the giant trapdoor is still there in the ceiling.
It’s a fascinating idea and space, a series of old buildings that have been cleaned up and modernised that now houses a cluster of art exhibitions. It’s probably unique at the moment. If you’re in the area, visiting a museum for example, and fancy seeing some art as well, then it’s very much worth a detour to pop inside.
Cromwell Place is open to the public Wed to Sat 10am-6pm and Sun 10am-4pm. It’s closed to the public on Mon & Tues.
At the moment, you need to book a free ticket to go in from here.