Marylebone Journal Feature


Published: 10 August 2017

The manager of Thompson's Gallery London, on Scottish painting, shifting trends and the importance of affordable art
Interview: Ellie Costigan
Portrait: Orlando Gili

Fill us in on the history of Thompson's Gallery.
My mum and dad started a gallery in 1982 in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, then in the early nineties opened in Dover Street in Mayfair, which at the time was a real art hub. About 10 years later we moved up to Marylebone—Dover Street was changing, and is now very fashion-heavy. At that point, mum and dad had four galleries and were jumping between them, then eight years ago my mum decided to take a step back, so I stepped in. My father is now based in Aldeburgh and for the last six years, I've managed the London gallery, though we still talk to each other about four times a day.

Did you always plan to get involved?
I studied history of art and got so much joy from it. I worked hard and got good grades and found it fascinating. But what they teach you is very different to what you need to know to manage a gallery—you learn on the job. I've grown up in the gallery, so I know my market very well—it's in my blood, I suppose. We have clients I've known since I was about 16, working at the gallery during the summer holidays.
You recently moved to Seymour Place. Tell us about the new space.
We have a sculpture garden now, which is really exciting. It's nice to be able to show sculpture as it should be shown. We have some big pieces coming in, and we will be changing things every three months or so. It's just a different dynamic. I saw a gallery in Johannesburg that did a similar thing and I loved it.
It's been a positive move. This area has the same vibe as Marylebone High Street and New Cavendish Street: you can get to know all your neighbours and it has that village feel. My clients like the independents, the one-offs, and that's what we have here at Seymour Place. I am working my way round all the restaurants. I love Gail's bakery—I have to stop going there so often!—and I take clients to Sandy's for pizza, then head opposite to The Carpenters Arms for a drink. It's one of those great, old-school pubs that are all too rare these days.

What sort of art do you specialise in?
We deal with a couple of abstract artists, but we are predominantly a figurative gallery, mostly oil paintings. Certainly, there needs to be a certain level of skill, but the artist doesn't have to be trained—I think a school can sometimes guide almost too much. We also deal in modern British works, which are more investment pieces.

You deal in a lot of Scottish art—is that deliberate?
My dad had big ties to Scotland when he was younger, which meant we had a lot of Scottish holidays as children. We'd often be in the car and my mum would see a sign saying 'gallery, this way' in the middle of nowhere and we would all groan because she'd always want to have a look. Now I do it to my husband! So that's part of it, but Glasgow School of Art is a great school and it does produce some wonderful artists who are perfectly suited to us: they're oil paintings, they're bright, they're fun, they're figurative, and I suppose quite familiar in the sense of the subject.
Robert Kelsey has exhibited with us for more than 25 years and he is a great example of the talent to be found there. He is one of Scotland's most prominent contemporary landscape painters. He celebrates the light found in Scottish landscapes, especially the west coast—an area our clients love. His paintings are fabulous, and our family's relationship with him is another reason to keep going back there!

How has the gallery developed over the years?
When the gallery first opened, we didn't deal in contemporary artists. I remember walking in as a child, and the gallery had wooden furniture, Victorian watercolours on the walls in ornate gold frames. Then minimalism came in, antiques went out, and we had to change with it. Our artists have naturally evolved over the years, too. Paul Wright for example, who has been with us for many years, had a very Lucian Freud style at the beginning—everything was much tighter and a bit more traditional. As we moved forward, he went into more monochrome colours and started loosening up. You can see the confidence within the work. It's fascinating. Every artist changes and it's good for the gallery; it means we constantly have something new to offer.

How trend-driven is the contemporary art world?
There are noticeable trends—one year more traditional things will go, say, and the next they won't, but it seems there's little rhyme or reason to it. I will be fascinated to see how Brexit affects us. It has slowed things down, as is always the case when people have concerns. We have the Affordable Art Fair in October and it will be interesting to see how that goes.
The art world is often perceived as being quite elitist—how are you challenging that?
I think galleries can be quite intimidating places. People have this idea that there'll be sparse white walls and an unfriendly person sat at the desk, but it couldn't be further from that here. We always want the door to be open, we always say hello to everybody who walks in—it's a small thing, but it encourages conversation. I enjoy what I do and I want to chat to people and share that love. It's important to be as friendly as you can, because you never know—even if they don't buy, in five years' time they might remember that nice gallery and come back.
We're attracting younger clients—maybe because I am younger myself, but I think also because we offer things like the Own Art scheme, which has been amazing for encouraging younger buyers. It means you can buy a sculpture or a painting and pay it back in monthly instalments, with an interest-free loan. Lack of money can be a barrier to art, which is why I think that if we were ever to re-introduce a charge for national galleries and museums—as is often debated—it would be a tragedy. It's one of the best things about living in the UK. The fact that you can just walk in, learn things, work out what you like—that's really important. London is so expensive as it is; Joe Bloggs doesn't want to spend 30 bob getting into a gallery. That's not what art should be about.

What can we expect from Thompson's in the future?
We have various art fairs coming up, and we will be having a fun party to celebrate the opening. I hope to get to know our neighbours more and more, and work with The Portman Estate. I am feeling good about the move: we've met some wonderful clients, we've got this great sculpture garden—I think it will be an exciting year.
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