Neighbourhoods of London: Gallery Hopping Around Mayfair

Today I fell in love with London all over again. This tends to happen on sunny Saturdays where I have vague plan that then descends into a wander. This was another one of those days.

What other city can you see chic Sheikhs barrel supercars down narrow historic roads lined with some of the most expensive brands in the world barely 200m away from the tourist hordes looking to bag their next bargain from the souvenir sellers that punctuate one of the least attractive but enduringly popular shopping streets in the world. Mad old ladies with outrageous fashion that would be derided in the provinces are celebrated here. This is old money. Old money doesn’t care. The architecture, the history, the sheer variety of things to do and people to see is so overwhelming that I took a 7pm nap in bewilderment.

The part of London that I get most consistently lost in is Mayfair. It is maybe the universe’s cruel way of making me wander the wider expanses of an area that I so clearly cannot afford. Town planners of yore didn’t care about a sensical geography around here. This is the district for promenading, for showing off your wealth, and for parting with it as you come across a new, unexpected shop having taken the wrong turn.

I am starting this new series with the richest square on the Monopoly board because it is one of my favourite parts of the capital due to its sheer ridiculousness. The geography of London will never fail to amaze me, and the sudden and marked contrast between Oxford Street and Mayfair is stark. My first week in London I got deeply lost in Mayfair for half an hour, and was quite scared of it. Nine months in the city and I truly do adore it.

My relationship with Mayfair is quite new. Even though I was born in Camden and regularly visited Chinatown in my youth, mother and I never ventured in the land between Piccadilly and Oxford Street. Now I have meetings in Mayfair (offices here are decorated like fine hotels, and the beverage offerings beat the public sector by quite some margin) and spend my Saturdays wandering around.

The Saturday after I returned from Chicago was my first foray into the Mayfair gallery hop. TimeOut is still my bible for the city, for better or for worse, and it had recommended three or four new art shows in and around Oxford Circus. Thinking about the world, London must also surely be one of only a handful of cities worldwide that can have a weekly magazine dedicated to culture and socialising, with new events fighting for places in a calendar constantly. You can never truly “do” London. The variety within is astonishing.

The galleries that I visited are lost in my memory. First to Stephen Friedman for a “humorous” art exhibition split over two sides of the road, as the gallery is. Two hipsters were the only other visitors. They quickly left. Two severe women fashionably concentrated on their screens. Next, to Savile Row, and my first foray into ringing a doorbell for entry into a gallery. A less severe woman, chatting to I presume her boss about sales. The exhibition was underwhelming. I left quickly.A gallery further down this street or another street caught my eye, with much of the exhibition hidden from street view, but clearly large paintings on display within. I ventured in. It was good. I found my new hobby.

Mayfair is littered with galleries, but far from the usual tourist galleries. These are buying galleries. Pictures and sculptures won’t necessarily have descriptions. If you want a description, pick up a sheet. When they do have descriptions, they will likely be minimal, have a price, or feature a sticker to show that they have been bought. These are either semi-private collections or collections which are concerned with the business of art.

These are not places for the fanny pack tourist. The security guards, doorbells, and severe men and women who are working either furiously or not at all are all there to ward off the people that aren’t made for this type of environment.

Today Ilga and I went gallery hopping. I, dishevelled from cycling, with my raincoat, dress, bare legs, and fitflops, and she also in casual, cycle-ready wear. Up and down the country people may have looked at us as not looking “fashionable” enough, but in London, if you act like you belong, you do and people won’t question it. March in and act like you belong. Take in the hidden, free culture that these public galleries/stores offer.

Ring that bell and feel that plush carpet or cold chrome floor beneath your feet, taking in how designed all of the interiors are. This is your reward for making the leap inside.

Mayfair galleries are seemingly only hypermodern or Victorian millionaire in style. I love the smell of wealth on a Saturday.

Ilga was shocked at how small most of the galleries are. These galleries aren’t for the wider public, they are for buyers, and buyers with this kind of money don’t need to be overwhelmed with choice. They like what they like, or know what an investment is, and will part with their money as they see fit.

Today’s walk went as follows:

  1. The Photographer’s Gallery (not Mayfair): modern on the inside, with four floors of galleries. Usually only one floor takes my interest.
  2. Getty Images Gallery (not Mayfair): first visited on my initial Mayfair gallery hopping trip. The Slim Aarons ‘Poolside’ exhibition was my favourite exhibition that I have seen since moving to London. The new 1926: Britain Through the Lens” exhibition is a charming snapshot of a year in the life of our changing country. The best for well-curated documentary photography.
  3. Ronchini Gallery: following on from my enthusiasm for Slim Aarons, I was excited to see Massimo Vitali’s large-scale photographs of the rich and beautiful at the beach. Slim wins out, but the scale and framing of Vitali’s work was enthralling.
  4. Ben Brown Fine Arts: Ilga’s favourite of the galleries. The subterranean gallery is an oasis of calm in the city, much like the Ori Gersht photographs of zen gardens. Two bohemian art types had a heated conversation in one corner.
  5. Halcyon Gallery: Andy Warhol galore. What a fine city in which you can just happen upon a major Andy Warhol show that has very few visitors and generally isn’t well publicised. An unexpected feature of my day, and the one which prompted me to continue my Mayfair jaunt.
  6. Richard Green: a classical fine art gallery with a doorbell for entry and a plush interior. Oil paintings lined the first room, with works from a few masters featuring, and further in were Dutch flowers and Edward Seago exhibitions. This opened in 1955, but give you an idea of what the dealings of the rich in the 19th century may have been like, only with computers. No pictures were allowed, but I imagine this was how many living rooms of the past few centuries were fashioned. The Fine Arts Society next door, which I thought this was, is only open Monday-Friday 10-6, or by appointment on Saturday. Art buyers aren’t constrained by our usual working week.
  7. D-Contemporary: another doorbell. I was enticed in by the wildlife photography that was advertised on the outside. Roger Hooper is one of the finest wildlife photographers in the world, and here was a chance exhibition. The staff were friendly and gave me a leaflet on the charity and exhibition. People who want money are friendly. Refreshments at the back, photographs that make you want to book a safari throughout.
  8. David Zwirner: the planned end gallery to my trip. The Richard Hamilton exhibition on the second floor may not have been worth the walk, but it did remind me that I like clean plastic products. The R. Crumb exhibition ‘Art and Beauty’ was exceedingly enjoyable. There were roughly twenty people within during my 15 minute visit, a good show for Mayfair. Advertising pays off, and a big name with a comparatively big collection makes it worth the trip.

Other galleries were visited, but these were fleeting. I continued to wander the streets and admire the shops, which are galleries in themselves. There are increasingly few good shopping streets in the country, but these window displays are constantly inviting even if the security and the prices mean that the stores themselves are often not. Aside from the clothing and designers, the specialty shops incite a curiosity as to how they stay in business, but not enough curiosity to actually enter (where galleries accept my disheveled look, shops realise that I won’t be making a purchase and thus it makes for a more uncomfortable experience).

Ah, to have this kind of wealth. Ah, to be this free to see this fine city how the other half live it.


Slim Aarons, Poolside Glamour


Londoners do what they do


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