For the British art and antiques trade, the summer season still carries much resonance.
The days of rowing club colours at Henley and Georgian walnut at the Grosvenor House Hotel may no longer be with us. However, as drawings dealer Stephen Ongpin says: “It is the one time of the year when the non-contemporary art market in London comes into its own.
“It’s when the travelling circus of collectors, curators, scholars and dealers all meet up again, and there is usually quite a buzz.”
Traditionally it has been a clutch of fairs – once Grosvenor House, now Olympia and Masterpiece London – that has proved the primary draw. And for members of the trade without retail premises (and there are increasingly many), or with shops outside London, they remain a must.
However, with central London fairs a very substantial financial commitment for all concerned, this year we are down to two events. And it is partly the closure of Art Antiques London that has encouraged some traders to consider their options. This year, perhaps more than ever, the emphasis is on the gallery.
Fairs are not for everyone. As London’s newest art dealer, Thaddaeus Ropac, says in uncompromising fashion: “At an art fair we might have to put up with poor lighting and cramped space. But [from new premises Ely House on Dover Street], I have more than 10,000 square metres of my own space in my galleries and we make sure we use it.
“Galleries should create their own reason to make it worthwhile for people to travel to see them. Relying on fairs can make you lazy.”
To those lucky enough to have a central London gallery, it can feel like a case of use it or lose it. As Jamie Anderson of Waterhouse & Dodd explains: “We’re in a position where we have a great gallery and we have a great opportunity, thanks to a bit of luck and a bit of market positioning, to have a strong exhibition in the works.”
Serendipity doubtless plays a part in any strong dealer exhibition. This year, from June 7-July 9, the gallery will be showing more than 30 works direct from the estate of Penrith Society abstract painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004).
Waterhouse & Dodd will be among 60 galleries taking part in Brown’s Art Weekend – this year rebranded Mayfair Art Weekend (June 30-July 2).
Others seek to focus on the merits of the captive audience that only the bespoke show provides.
Some of London’s ceramics dealers have trodden this path for several years. This year Eight Days in June (renamed Kensington – The Heart of Ceramics) is joined by A Collectors’ Paradise at the Haughton gallery.
And for the second year running former Olympia fair stalwart Lennox Cato decamps to London for a “more concentrated, more personalised event” where he “can make his customers feel special”. The venue for A Universal Friend will be 16 Bloomfield Terrace, just off Pimlico Road, the gallery of fellow furniture dealer Carlton Hobbs.
For Islamic art expert Oliver Hoare, independent is the only way to go. He has been a DIY-dealer for many years. “A fair is by its nature a very commercial endeavour, and with so many booths and so much art, all under one roof, it can be quite intense.
“The art market today can often seem quite frantic, and focused on profit and brands. I wanted to stage an exhibition in a context which puts the focus back onto the objects themselves.”
This summer his exhibition, Every Object Tells a Story (until July 5), is in the former studio of painter Sir John Lavery in Cromwell Place in South Kensington.
It brings together a modern-day Cabinet of Curiosities of 400 items ranging from about 3000BC to the present, covering what he describes as “magic, myths, meteorites, sex and unicorns”. Whether you are a believer or not, the ‘unicorn’ horn (a 2.07m narwhal tusk from the 15th or 16th century) is priced at £55,000.
In a gallery space one can show works to their best advantage STEPHEN ONGPIN
The leading ‘by dealers for dealers’ event this summer is London Art Week (June 30-July 7). In its fifth year the festival is on the rise. The organisation, which became a limited company late last year, is now set to run for two weeks annually (the next one takes place this winter) and is pitched to a wider audience –particularly those involved in decorative buying.
The eight-day summer event, a celebration of largely traditional ‘pre-contemporary’ art, is already a staple of the season. Now incorporating around 50 galleries, it offers a sizeable dose of gallery-led activity based in Mayfair and St James’s.
“We’ve got more events and more activities,” says Crispian Riley-Smith, CEO of London Art Week.
“It’s a win-win for all involved: for the galleries, for the museums adding to their collections and for private clients.”
For many dealers, the choice to fully commit to London Art Week means stepping away from the fair scene.
Last year drawings dealer Stephen Ongpin doubled up – combining a gallery exhibition with a stand at Masterpiece – but says the back-and-forth was difficult and meant risking not meeting clients or curators. Despite some reluctance to miss standing at the fair this year, he’ll be staging an exhibition featuring the drawings of Venetian artists Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and his son, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804).
“Obviously in a gallery space one can show works to their best advantage, something that is not always possible at an art fair, where booth space is usually limited,” he says.
“While art fairs have the distinct advantage of attracting a diverse range of visitors, at a gallery exhibition one can show works in a more user-friendly setting. Dealers can devote much more time to interacting with a client and put works into context.”
The atmosphere is relaxed, collegiate and with an emphasis on the bigger picture – cementing London’s position as one of the most vibrant centres of the international art market.
Venerable paintings dealership Colnaghi, which is hosting an exhibition opening during the RHS Chelsea Flower Show showing Old Masters alongside the photographs of contemporary American artist Paulette Tavormina. The dealer is also taking advantage of London Art Week with its own evening event aimed at a gathering of 20 and 30-somethings.
The gallery will live-stream auctions and ask their guests to accurately predict prices, proving the summer season is not all high-brow.