It's Frieze art fair's West End night, and roughly 70 people spill onto the street from Kirkman House, a smart office block close to Goodge Street station. The crowd is made up of curators and art-world types, most younger than the majority of punters at the numerous Frieze afterparties around W1. It feels slightly like the period after everyone is kicked out of a nightclub, people smoking and wondering where to drink next. But everyone is talking about the art, not music.
Beneath our feet is Castor, where Tom Worsfold's show of paintings and drawings has opened (installation view: opposite). The basement galleries are full, visitors meandering from the RA Schools alumnus' scenes of fleshy fantasy to sculptures by artists showing with indigo+madder, the gallery which adjoins (and shares office space with) Castor. The two were neighbours in Deptford's Resolution Way, with Castor beginning life as a project space in 2016, and indigo+ madder founded a year later.
Both galleries relocated to Fitzrovia this year. The understated streets between Euston Road, Gower Street, Oxford Street and Great Portland Street are now bustling with medium-sized galleries showing international artists across all media. Reasonable rents (compared with Mayfair and Soho), access to collectors and central London's diverse audience are just some of the benefits. Nearby institutions such as the RA, the Photographers' Gallery, the British Museum and University College London bring in new visitors, as do the publishers and libraries in adjacent Bloomsbury.
A handful of commercial galleries have come and gone in Fitzrovia over the decades. Alison Jacques, Pilar Corrias and Josh Lilley have anchored the area in recent times, all opening between 2007 and 2009. As Peckham and Bethnal Green gentrified in the 2010s, diminishing their artistic identity, central London's appeal grew in contrast. Darren Flook, whose eponymous gallery resides on Great Portland Street, recalls Bethnal Green brimming with artists when he co-founded his first gallery, Hotel, there in 2003. But these artists have since been priced out of the East End, and few collectors live there either. "I don't think I had clicked just how much the population had changed until I left,' Flook savs.
Alys Williams, Director of Fitzrovia's newly opened Vitrine, says the same of Bermondsey, where she started out, as does gallerist Hannah Watson about Shoreditch, where her gallery Trolley operated until 2011. 'The redevelopment of the Owl and Pussycat pub on Redchurch Street was the first sign of change,' she says mournfully. A proposed rent tripling - and a move to Fitzrovia - quickly followed. Watson reopened in an Arts & Crafts block still bearing the mosaic signage of its former owner, a family-run gas and electrical engineers (above). Trolley became TJ Boulting in its honour.
Empty storefronts in W1 are still common, victims of scant tourism during the pandemic. This gives new galleries ample choice, but rent inflation remains a risk: the Fitzrovia News used to print both Galleries Opening and Closing lists for locals, Watson says. Maximillian William and Alice Black, two Fitzrovia gallerists, mention the pressure of business rates on their operations.
Fitzrovia's galleries share a collegiate relationship. Black, who is soon to open on Windmill Street, found her current space on Mortimer Street via a tip-off from Charlie Fellowes, co-founder of the gallery Edel Assanti, who also advised Williams on Vitrine's space on Riding House Street. For its own programme, Edel Assanti has converted a cavernous former women's hostel into a 4,000sq-ft complex. Walking down Mortimer Street at dusk, several gallery façades create a backlit triptych: at Workplace, Marwan Bassiouni's photographs of suburbia shot through mosque windows give way to Atalanta Xanthe's lilac-framed paintings at Alice Black next door, with the expressionistic canvases of Sylvia Snowden visible through Edel Assanti's rear window completing the slightly surreal set.
Gallery directors co-ordinate their private views, an attempt to evolve their 'destination venue' status into something more like community. 'Galleries realise the worth of being in a cluster of peers,' Williams says. "London Gallery Forum', a WhatsApp group set up by dealer Sadie Coles during lockdown, has become a valuable resource for its 150 members, who share information and, crucially, landlord advice.
Art is spreading into the local community too. TJ Boulting's Hannah Watson is Chair of the Fitzrovia Chapel, which served the now demolished Middlesex Hospital. These days it hosts exhibitions relating both to the hospital's history and Fitzrovia. Something exciting is brewing in the area, says Castor's director Andy Wicks. He talks about 'rebuilding an art world for this generation' with generosity and openness at its centre. Like all the local gallerists, he feared that moving into central London would mean compromise for his exhibitions. With plaster splattered on his clothes from installing Worsfold's show, he now sounds upbeat. 'Moving to Fitzrovia is about the greater good for our artists,' he says. "They don't need to change. They've always been great.'
Ravi Ghosh is a writer and critic