Cork Street: An Avenue For Art By Louisa Buck

Today, London is regarded as a crucial centre for worldwide contemporary art, but this has not always been the case. For much of the twentieth century London was nothing like the global art hub that it is now, instead it was a cultural backwater, cut off from the major avantgarde movements – Dada, Surrealism, Abstraction, Constructivism, Pop Art – that were flourishing across continental Europe, and then America. The Tate only acquired its first Picasso in 1933, and a conservative early flower painting at that.

But amidst all this stagnant conservative provincialism there was one small corner of the city where it was still possible to catch a glimpse of the most recent artistic developments. Just north of the Royal Academy, in the modest thoroughfare of Cork Street, a handful of pioneering galleries not only kept the pilot light of radicalism alight, but at times allowed it to flare up very brightly indeed.

As Saville Row is to tailors, or Hatton Garden is to jewellers, so for over half a century – from the late 1930s to the early 1990s – Cork Street was the premier address for progressive contemporary art. While the rest of the British art establishment turned its nose up at anything remotely experimental, it was in the galleries of Cork Street that many of the major names of international Modernism – Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Paul Klee, Alexander Calder, Piet Mondrian and Jean Miró – all received their first British exposure. The street was also a crucial early showcase for much of our own homegrown talent, including Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Paul Nash. Later, Cork Street also provided an early UK and European foothold for some of the key figures within American Abstraction and Pop Art.


Poster for The International Surrealist Exhibition 1936 designed by Max Ernst

First to arrive in 1925 was Freddie Mayor, who was described by the jazz singer George Melly as “a short, rubicund, cigar-smoking, bowler-hatted bon viveur whose admirable taste in pictures was equalled by his enthusiasm for the racecourse.” But despite its owner’s dual love of the track, the Mayor Gallery at 18 Cork Street was quickly established as a groundbreaking venue, exhibiting artists such as Alexander Calder, Paul Klee and André Masson in Britain for the first time. In July 1933 it staged Joan Miró’s first UK solo exhibition and in the same year Francis Bacon also had his first London showing in a mixed show at the Mayor. Around this time the Mayor Gallery was also the centre for ‘Unit One’ a group of progressive artists that included Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth and Edward Burra.

Freddie’s son, James Mayor, took over the gallery in 1973 and The Mayor Gallery then went on to champion and provide essential early UK showings of many leading American artists including Eva Hesse, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Rauschenberg, Rosenquist, Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann. Mayor Gallery remains on Cork Street, now on the first floor of number 21, and continues to be renowned as London’s foremost gallery for Dada and Surrealism.

Where Mayor led, other galleries followed. In 1936 the Redfern Gallery moved from Old Bond Street to 20 Cork Street, where it still resides today. The artist Patrick Heron wrote of his life-changing experience when he walked in to the gallery to see Matisse’s enormous 1911 painting The Red Studio, declaring “It revolutionised my existence.”

1936 also saw the opening of the London Gallery at number 28, which, under the directorship of E.L.T. Mesens, the Belgian Surrealist and friend of René Magritte, soon became the official HQ for Surrealism in Britain. Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Man Ray were just a few of the major names of Surrealism who were given early exhibitions there and London Gallery private views were often famously riotous and flamboyant. There was scandalised press coverage of their Surrealist Objects and Poems exhibition of November 1937 which opened at midnight with guests, including Henry Moore, being served sausages and whiskey, whilst the artist Julian Trevelyan gave a speech dressed as a blind explorer. Among the throng was ‘Surrealist Phantom’ Miss Sheila Legge, who spent the evening racily hitching up her skirt to bare a leg painted with a grinning mouth, a sailing boat and a demon figure, while Herbert Read, the leading art critic of the day, urged the increasingly inebriated gathering to appreciate the bizarre array of exhibits which included what he described as “angels of anarchy and machines for making clouds.”


Outside the London Gallery, Cork Street: from left to right: ELT Mesens, Roland Penrose, Andre Breton, Humphrey Jennings. Louisa Buck archive

Another conspicuous early Cork Street presence was the legendary art collector Peggy Guggenheim who between 1938 and 1939 ran her Guggenheim Jeune Gallery out of a former pawn shop up on the second floor of number 30, next door to the London Gallery. Marcel Duchamp, Dadaist and founding father of conceptual art, acted as her artistic advisor and although it never made her any money, and was only open for just over a year, Guggenheim Jeune caused considerable waves right from the beginning. Its opening show of Jean Cocteau was accompanied by an essay translated by one of Miss Guggenheim’s paramours, the young and then unknown Samuel Beckett, and included two drawings on linen sheets, made especially for the occasion and depicting, aptly as it turned out, four naked figures symbolising ‘fear giving wings to courage.’ Cocteau had covered their genitals with fig leaves, but the fact that their pubic hair was still visible resulted in British Customs detaining the works at Croydon Airport, deeming them too obscene for public view. After a dash to South London and hurried negotiations by Guggenheim and Duchamp, the offending works were eventually released on the condition that they were shown in a back room.

Guggenheim Jeune went on to give both Kandinsky and Tanguy their first solo shows in London but again fell foul of customs with a groundbreaking exhibition of sculpture from Paris selected by Duchamp and including works by Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder and Hans Arp. This time the authorities refused to admit the works into England as an art exhibition, attempting instead to impose what would have been prohibitively punishing duties based solely on the fact that they consisted of large pieces of metal, wood and stone. Matters were not helped when the notoriously conservative director of the Tate Gallery, J.B. Manson, not only instructed Her Majesty’s Customs that the sculptures were “not art”, but also declared that they were “all the sort of stuff I would like to leave out.” Following a petition rustled up by Henry Moore and Herbert Read, the matter was raised in the House of Commons who overruled the Tate director and declared that the pieces were indeed works of art. So in a blaze of publicity the exhibition went ahead. Soon after that Manson gave up his post.

However none of the above can compare to the shenanigans accompanying the International Surrealist Exhibition which took place just around the corner from Cork Street at 5 Burlington Gardens in the heatwave summer of 1936. This groundbreaking show in the New Burlington Galleries (on the current site of Cecconi’s restaurant) gave Britain its first full-scale exposure to the international Surrealist movement and kick-started a wider awareness of modern art in the UK.

Advert for the November 1937 show of Surrealist Objects and Poems at the London Gallery, illustration ‘The Angel of Anarchy’ 1934–6 (now lost plaster and mixed media sculpture by Eileen Agar which is also a portrait of her future husband Joseph Bard) Louisa Buck archive

The carnival of events surrounding this exhibition, which was attended by more than 25,000 people during its four week run, has now become the stuff of legend. The poet Andre Breton, Surrealism’s founder, officiated at the crushed opening of over a thousand people in a green suit, which matched his wife’s emerald fingernails. Dylan Thomas offered bemused guests cups of boiled string, asking whether they wanted it weak or strong, and Salvador Dali nearly suffocated as he delivered an inaudible lecture on ‘Some Authentic Paranoiac Phantoms’ whilst bolted inside a diving suit and holding a pair of leashed Irish Wolfhounds. It was also during this opening that Miss Sheila Legge made her first ‘Phantom of Surrealism’ appearance with her face covered by a mask of rose petals and brandishing a pork chop in her hand. All of this took place accompanied by howls of protest from the press and before a dazzling array of exhibits in which masterpieces by Picasso, Picabia, Ernst and Magritte jostled for space alongside definitive works by Arp, Miro and Dali. While outside on the streets of London the traffic ground to a halt along the entire length of Bond Street all the way down to Piccadilly Circus.

However just as modern art was gaining some momentum, the outbreak of the second world war in September 1939 brought matters to an abrupt halt resulting in the mass closure of commercial galleries across London, including those in and around Cork Street. Yet in the post-war years, there were again artistic stirrings on the street. The Mayor and Redfern Galleries reopened at their original addresses, and significant newcomers also joined the Cork Street lineup. One of these was Victor Waddington, who opened his Cork Street gallery in 1957 mainly dealing in Irish artists such as Jack Yeats, as well as paintings and works on paper by French artists such as Matisse, Picasso, Rouault and Soutine.

Thanks to his son Leslie’s influence, the gallery broadened its horizons during the 1960s to host solo presentations for the Cornish school of St Ives artists, as well as being largely responsible for introducing post-war American Colour Field, Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art to London. Waddington’s also premiered Anthony Caro’s coloured welded steel sculptures and works by the so-called ‘New Generation’ of artists, including young British artists such as John Hoyland and Patrick Caulfield.

In 1966 Leslie Waddington became independent of his father and opened his own Cork Street gallery at number 11 where, over the next decade, he was instrumental in raising the profile of abstract art. Into the 1980s Waddington Gallery was showing the latest new European and American painting and sculpture by such figures as Georg Baselitz, Mimmo Paladino, Barry Flanagan and Michael Craig-Martin. Always keen to promote promising newcomers, he continued to do so even during the downturn in the art market of the early 1990s, taking on such future stars as Fiona Rae, Ian Davenport and Lisa Milroy. Since the death of Leslie Waddington the gallery still operates at number 11 Cork Street under the directorship of Stéphane Custot but is called Waddington Custot in honour of the building’s former occupant.


Salvador Dali delivering his lecture at the International Surrealist Exhibition with, from left to right, Herbert Read, Nusch Eluard, Rupert Lee and Paul Eluard. Louisa Buck archive

Among the other notable presences on Cork Street was Bernard Jacobson, who arrived in 1969 and began by publishing and distributing prints by the likes of David Hockney, Henry Moore and Lucian Freud, and then went on to specialise in paintings and sculpture by both British and international artists. Many other major names of contemporary art have also had a Cork Street address at some point, including leading contemporary print maker Alan Cristea – who for many years had two galleries on the street – and Victoria Miro. The latter recently returned to Mayfair and opened a companion to her East End gallery a few streets away in St George Street.

As the art world has expanded galleries have continued to open throughout the West and East Ends of London. However, for many years Cork Street still continued to be the key address for contemporary art. When the iconic 1960s art dealer Robert Fraser – aka Groovy Bob – decided to open up a new gallery in 1983, the address he chose was 21 Cork Street, and the crowd who turned up for the private view of Brian Clarke’s abstract paintings filled the entire street. Cork Street was still considered a sufficiently important art world centre for the young artist’s collective Grey Organisation to disrupt the 1985 Cork Street Summer Party with one of their acts of ‘Art Terrorism’, splashing the windows of all its major galleries with grey paint and getting arrested and banned from central London as a result.

These days London has nearly 300 galleries selling modern and contemporary art and Cork Street is just one amongst numerous locations in Mayfair, and beyond, in which one can view art from across the globe. However, such is the power of its long and rich artistic history, that for many of us it is still impossible to hear the name ‘Cork Street’ without an art work – or an art experience – floating before the eyes. Long may it continue to fire our imaginations.