with James Faure Walker 1998
Where were you born and when?
I was born in Westminster, London in 1948.
Which art school did you go to?
St. Martins School of Art 1966 to 1970, Royal College of Art 1970 to
When did you first move to the East End of London?
Summer 1971. I started renting my space at 10 Martello Street, E8.
Why did you move there?
I needed more space than I had in my West Hampstead flat, where the
room I used as a studio was only eight by ten feet. There was much less
of a routine of 'getting a studio' at the time, and I didn`t know anyone
interested in sharing. So I went round the Dip shows (as they were called
then) and ran into Enrique Pardo at Chelsea who had the same idea. We
looked at quite a few premises. Some were factory basements, some unused
floors of clothing factories. Initially we weren`t too keen on the new
Space Studios idea because it seemed too much like art school. However,
after a couple of weeks we realised that everything else was twice the
price, and the Space people were a lot more straightforward than the
other potential landlords we`d been dealing with.
Were you helped by an organisation?
By Space, once we'd opted for a large space at Martello Street. We had
to clear it ourselves of course, and build the walls.
How did you fit in with the East End?
Fitting in? With the local community? Well, the East End did have a
more distinctive feel to it in 1971, and there was often an awful smell
- from the tanneries I think - over Hackney. However, it may be that
I`ve changed and grown used to the locality - I`ve lived close by since
1985. It`s also wrong to think of the East End as being one community.
It`s probably always been a mixture, and a place for refugees and misfits.
But in the seventies there seemed to be plenty of distinctive 'East
Enders' around, often old and worn, often disabled, maybe from the war,
maybe from lack of decent medical attention from pre-National Health
days. There was resentment too, racism, and the bunch of hippy-style
'artists' at Martello Street must have seemed from another planet. Outside
the studio there used to be a particularly bitter character who repaired
the Billingsgate market lorries - another explanation for foul smells
in the summer. It was hard work trying to get the idea of the studios
past his scowl. In the eighties taxis started arriving from the West
End disgorging German curators in their street-cred gear, and sure enough
Matts Gallery featured on the list of venues of the hopefuls doing the
Knowledge on their mopeds. Now, at the end of the nineties the profession
of 'artist' is apparently one of the commonest at local doctor`s surgeries,
and the area has the highest concentration of artists Europe has ever
known. 7. I soon made friends, and within a few years got to know others
in the building - Bruce Lacey, Robin Klassnik, Jules Baker, Gary Wragg,
Ian McKeever, Roger Bates (who was an old pal from St Martins), John
Fassolas, Noel Forster, Mike Porter, and so on. At first the ethos of
Space seemed as much to do with inflatables, multiples, happenings,
alternative film, etc as with the quiet secluded painting studio - much
of the building was open-plan. It was like an art collective. In that
atmosphere painting was rather an introspective affair. But by the eighties
that had changed, and most of the studios were occupied by painters.
Can you rember the train of events that led to
you moving there?
I'd lived in Islington from '73 to '85, which though only a couple of
miles away - a pleasant walk along the canal - grew and evolved away
from Hackney like a rich relative. Upper Street became a string of estate
agents, Mexican restaurants and antique shops. We moved to get a garden
and a whole house. In fact the housing in Hackney is often grander and
roomier, because in the last century it was a classier place to live
- more open space, wider roads, greener.
Have you exhibited your work in the East End?
Exhibiting in the East? In studio shows, first in 1973, then 1975, then
a big gap till 1986, and in the Whitechapel Open six times from 1980
on, at the Vortex gallery in Stoke Newington a couple of times if that
counts, and at the AIR Gallery in Rosebery Avenue. Generally, the galleries
that feature in the art press as alternative and 'East End' - like Chisenhale,
Showroom, Matts, etc - don`t go out of their way to bring in the locals
either as exhibitors or visitors. They`re quite secretive.
Why do you think so many artists collected in
the East End between the years 72 and 97?
I would guess the answer was first of all economics: cheap studio space,
and a nice place to live. Then the area acquired a reputation (through
Space and Acme principally, and Open Studio events, students visiting)
and more people wanted a stake in it. Sometimes people seemed to take
a studio space as a way of 'being' an artist - they were hardly ever
there - but by the mid eighties the art population seemed to reach a
critical mass, and began shaping the social geography. Undoubtedly -
and this is something I take for granted now - it`s a comfortable place
to be now, well suited to the typical artist`s life-style, so you can
blend into the general shabbiness: not too many tempting restaurants
or expensive shops; excellent cheap art materials places like Paintworks;
unpretentious galleries like Flowers East. More often than not I run
into someone I know in the same trade, and just by looking out of my
room here at home I can see the houses of four or five artists I know.
You can`t walk five minutes anywhere in Hackney, it seems, without being
a stone`s throw from another studio block. 11. Yes, it`s changed, but
I can`t really say how much it`s changed due to the Hackney ambience.
What if I`d lived in Richmond? Hebden Bridge? Antarctica? Actually my
theory is the ruggedness of the area has got into a lot of people`s
work. It`s hard not to be effected by the pathos of so much faded industrial
glory, the sense of so much grinding poverty, the pride of the place,
the crumbling, subsiding, 'Victory Cafe' on Hackney Road - I did a piece
on that. After getting heavily into computers ten years ago, and reacting
against the suave anonymity of 'computer art', I made it my business
to register (via digital photography) the texture, the sense of lives
lived, throughout the neighbourhood. I now see the decaying brickwork
of the railway arches, the willow herb, as reassuringly beautiful -
unhealthy nostalgia maybe.
Why have you stayed on?
Probably answered this already. I`d love to live on the coast - with
a view like you get in some Milton Averys - and have a studio with a
wooden floor, central heating, ventilation, hot water, a good sound
system. Unfortunately, Hackney is what I can afford, just.
Were the local council helpful?
Local Council? Hardly aware of it, except that in the sixties, I gather,
it was the major blunder of blighting the whole area of London Fields
that got us the studio in the first place. In the eighties I recall
Hackney Council - always in the news as a typical loony left led by
ex-Oxford Puddephat, now Harman`s side-kick I think - being against
artists because they were like middle-class raiding parties. I once
wrote a letter (as member of local resident association) to Tommy someone,
thanking them for putting the roses in London Fields. They were so amazed
to get a positive letter I got a really nice reply. Now it`s all reversed,
and my wonderful 1906 local library has been closed to become a restaurant,
sound studio and gallery. The library has shrunk, and is now relegated
to portakabin status.
What do you think happened between 1972 and now?
Apart from getting twenty- five years older, having three children,
and so on? It might be worth speaking about the way art was covered
in magazines. In 1972 the East End had zero cred as a place for art,
apart from the Whitechapel Gallery, which seemed like an idealistic
venture. (This will sound like a cliche, but there`s truth in it....)
One effect of being a student in the sixties was the belief that we
could start art from scratch, that it was there for the taking, and
that if some facilities were lacking - studios, galleries, magazines
- we could create them for ourselves. If there was an Art Establishment
we didn't know much about it, meet it, or expect anything from it. Writing
on art was distant, from a lofty Oxbridge perspective even when trying
to be raw and trendy. Artists were like inarticulate tradesmen using
the rear entrance, one in a hundred a rustic genius. I'd had the example
of the directness, the 'ordinary' creativity of Tony Caro at St. Martins
as proof of there being a different way. I`d also been to the US in
1972 and 1975 and sensed the milieu (interviewing writers like Rosenberg,
Greenberg, Kozloff for Studio International) that gave rise to art ten
times more ambitious and optimistic than our local miserabilism. In
1974 several of us in the three or four Space studios that then existed
got together and began a series of Studio Forums - coordinated by Ben
Jones. The idea was simple. Every two weeks an artist would open their
studio to whoever wanted to come and chat about their work. I think
Bert Irvin did the first, and although there were often no more than
eight people present a core of stalwart enthusiasts put up with freezing
temperatures and impossible maps to form the core of what subsequently
became the art magazine, Artscribe. The magazine`s first issue appeared
in January 1976, and for the first year the format was vaguely 'alternative',
i.e. broadsheet style, and we hawked the four hundred copies round Serpentine
private views for about twenty pence a copy. Bert did the first cover,
Patrick Heron the second, William Tucker the third, Bernard Cohen the
fifth. Though we didn't all identify with the idea that it was a Pro-Painting
magazine, this was what gave it a lot of momentum. At the time there
was little coverage of painting or sculpture in the art press (Studio,
Art and Artists, Arts Review), and as (a recurring pattern in this country)
the establishment was trying to orchestrate its own version of the avant-garde.
What was called New Art (Hayward Gallery 1972) was about going beyond
'tired old media'. (Much the same is happening right now, by the way,
in the hyping of New Media art.) The lovely irony was that the magazine
supposedly fomenting revolution was Studio International (the higher-ups
having removed the experienced Peter Townsend, who later founded Art
Monthly, and installed the 'committed' Richard Cork) was a glossy costing
two pounds owned by a millionaire who let it run up debts of a quarter
of a million - that was the rumour. We`d started ours with seventy pounds,
and within a couple of years were putting Studio out of business. In
fact Studio was widely loathed for its condescension, its assumption
that critics were there to point the way, and when it finally disappeared
at the end of the seventies no-one noticed. Our magazine was written
by artists, and for all its faults was at least readable, without a
programme, and rooted in artistic humility - the knowledge that it`s
not that easy to crack the big riddles. For a while, at the end of the
seventies and the beginning of the eighties, Artscribe (I was editor
from `77 to `83) could fairly claim to be the leading British magazine,
as well as being the mouth- piece of artists. I went to the US, Canada,
Australia, France, on lecture tours, and was often struck by how much
more seriously the 'East End' artist`s community we were identified
with was taken there. French, German, US magazines (ArtForum wanted
to merge with us at one point, to gain better access to Europe), were
surprised that we could exist that way. I got out of magazines and art
writing, partly to concentrate exclusively on painting, partly out of
weariness with art world vanity etc. But there was a defining point
where the idea of an art world led by artists - think of the Covent
Garden ambience of ACME, AIR, Garage, Vera Russell`s Artists Market
- evaporated. Maybe it was an illusion that artists were in control.
The 'New Spirit of Painting' exhibition at the RA in 1981 - aside from
its merits as an exhibition to make painting trendy again - was an expression
of the dominance of collectors, dealers, market and media, and within
a few years art magazines were full of interviews with the rich and
the successful only. It was Hello! magazine culture. Significantly,
in its later incarnation, regretfully as an expensive glossy, an Artscribe
article described going to the East End to Matts Gallery (right next
door to my studio by the way) by taxi. So from being 'here' in the seventies,
the East End became a 'there' for the art cognoscenti of the eighties,
an exotic destination, 'authentic' because it wasn`t the familiar West
End of the well-off. The good side of this was that a lot of yuppy-style
galleries sprung up in West London, and a lot more people were selling
work, albeit at modest prices. Then recession set in, and by the mid-
nineties hardly any of those galleries survived. What happened next,
of course, was 'Sensation', and another generation defines itself, sets
up its idols, knocks over its precursors. But by now the East End is
so permeated with cool culture - or so fed on by arts programmes by
Matt Collings - that it`s just familiar art territory. There`s also
so much EEC and lottery money going into Hackney and Shoreditch that
artists will have to move to Edmonton to get a pioneer/art martyr ranking.
Do you have a particular memory or anecdote?
Having to deal with the Daily Mail journalists tracking down Genesi-P-Orridge
about his ICA show in about '76; clearing up the aftermath (broken roof
windows) of police drug raids, who thought the building was a drug factory,
because someone was growing cannabis on the roof; a stoned visitor from
the All Nations Club opposite wandering round the studios convinced
he was in the car park; Bruce Lacey`s eyes alight when he acquired his
Vampire Jet; curators dipping their hand in the wonderful Richard Wilson
installation imagining it was water, and finding their Armani jacket
dripping in sump oil. 16. The winter`s aren`t so cold. There`s a much
higher proportion of women artists occupying the studios, and people
have sub-divided the larger spaces. The prevailing sense of what art
is, or what the point of it is, has become less studio-centred, more
directed at celebrity - to exist you have to be seen on TV. Despite
that, the sense of artists just getting on quietly with their work persists.
Other links about James Faure Walker and his work:
Examples of work
Invisible Studios article
Other Educated Persons.
Artists and Art Organisations in the East End of London 1972 to present
Map of Hackney