I do so love art and I do so love my city of London, where I was born & bred, so you can imagine my excitement at being given the privilege of reading a preview of the fantastic book “Art London” – a guide book with a twist. It’s a book every art lover should have on their coffee table – but used like any other well thumbed guide book. It is a guide to places, artists and events – author Hettie Judah has sniffed out some hidden gems in back streets and in otherwise non descript buildings; has given information on the more well known galleries and museums; found some enticing galleries to add a picture or two to your collection; and details on every event to fill your diary. But, the book is so much more. It is jam packed with stories and historical data on everything art, including but not limited to, the artists, galleries, statues, architecture, public artwork as seen in the subways of the London Underground, as well as the general art scene. The book is a little mine of information! It has renewed my enthusiasm to revisit forgotten galleries and discover new places – adventures I hope to write about in future blogposts. Oh, and I mustn’t forget about the innovative photography in the book by Alex Schneideman! Superb! In the meantime though, I caught up with art critic and author of “Art London”, Hettie Judah …. hi Hettie!
Hi! I’m Hettie. I’m an art critic and writer – chief art critic for the British daily newspaper The I, and a regular contributor to The Guardian, Frieze, Vogue International, Art Quarterly and lots of other publications with ‘art’ in the title. I talk about art at events in galleries and museums.
“Art London” is a guide book extraordinaire – I was enthralled to read the history of some places that I had previously walked past eg the statues of Parliament Square and the building above St James Park Station, and not really taken much notice – and now I have my “tourist goggles” on ! What made you decide to write “Art London” in the first place?
Most Saturdays when I’m in London I spend the afternoon catching up on exhibitions in small commercial galleries clustered around a particular area. I was relying on a few mapping apps to locate the galleries, but realised that I was missing a lot – unbelievably there was no one app, book or website that offered anything close to a definitive list or guide to London’s small galleries. There also wasn’t much information about their history – I walked past the amazing Autograph gallery for years without realising that it was the gallery of the Association of Black Photographers, and that it had a very important history. One thing that’s fascinating about London is that it has such a diverse population and history – it was important to me with the book that I represented that as best I could, offering a set of parallel art histories for the city. I wanted Art London to be a friendly paperback rather than a glossy coffee table book: I’m hoping people will find it approachable, informative and entertaining, and most of all be able to get out there and use it.
I liked how you wrote the book – I enjoyed reading about the established galleries I visited as a child – such as William Morris Gallery and the V & A Museum Of Childhood in Bethnal Green; I can’t wait to explore the new modern art galleries and hidden gems; I was fascinated to read the mini biographies of artists of old and new – the book is packed to the rafters – how long did the book take you to write? What was the hardest part(s) to write about ?
Thank you! I’m guessing you must be a North East Londoner? I really enjoyed researching Art London – there was a lot of reading, and exploration – I hope that comes through in the writing. The book has taken about a year from start to finish, though I was drawing on knowledge that I have built up over a long career writing about art: there are stories such as the Tradescants’ Ark, or the husband and wife team behind Kelpra, that I have had in mind for years. The hardest part was knowing when to stop – the book could have been ten times the length – there are no end of fascinating stories. Every few days now I come across something or someone that I wish I’d had space to include – in June I interviewed Penny Slinger, who is a wonderful artist who was active in London in the 1960s. She is an ardent feminist, very sexually liberated: some of the stories she told would have been wonderful for Art London. Who knows, maybe I’ll do an expanded edition in a few years?
Oh you guessed right Hettie! I was born in Stratford & brought up in the Leyton/Leytonstone area of East London; I went to college in Tottenham in North London – so yes, the north east corner of London was definitely my childhood “stomping ground” 😊 Have you got a favourite art gallery or museum? Whilst researching your book, what were the hidden gems that surprised you the most?
There are some very special art spaces in London – I love Dilston Grove in Southwark Park, an atmospheric space in an old church building. I’m great fans of 6A Architects who converted the new South London Gallery building in an old fire station: their buildings always feel airy and welcoming, full of natural light and a sense of the space beyond the walls. I’m ashamed to say that didn’t know about the Jean Cocteau murals in Notre Dame de France before I started researching the book: they really are hidden gems. We all move so fast in this city: sometimes we need to be reminded to look up and pause. I don’t think I’d taken in the Henry Moore carvings on the Time Life building until a curator friend posted them on Instagram – I’d been walking past the building on Bond Street for years without looking at them properly.
I loved discovering new artists and learning about their historical background, such as Mary Beale, Britain’s first female professional portraitist. Have you got any favourite artists?
So many! Hogarth has a special place in my heart. He was a great observer of raw human nature – drunk, lusty, ambitious, destitute – but I think he appreciated simple everyday pleasures around him too. Gwen John’s paintings are exquisite – there are a couple in Tate Britain’s collection that are definitely on my ‘would steal’ list (sorry Tate…) ditto sculptures by the Geometry of Fear generation: Lynn Chadwick and Bernard Meadows. I don’t think I’d fit Phyllida Barlow’s work into my house, but her recent show at the Royal Academy was glorious. And our cover star Gillian Wearing has done so much great work – and with such wit.
“Art London” isn’t your first book – and you have written about art in many top name publications.Have you always enjoyed writing? Are there any genres you would like to have a go at, but haven’t as yet?
I’m afraid I was that cliché as a kid: a bookworm and a daydreamer. I’ve not changed much. I enjoy research, and I don’t have a natural flair for plots, so non fiction is probably my natural home. I have written all kinds of things in the past, from poetry to scripts for short films. Even comedy sketches. And like most writers I have an unfinished novel lurking in a bottom drawer…
Are there any new writing plans in the pipeline?
Funny you should ask! I’m just back from a research trip in Mexico City for a short biography of Frida Kahlo – unknotting biographical fact from fiction has been fascinating, she was a great teller of tall tales. Frida will be coming out this time next year with Laurence King.
Knowing you’re a bookworm … what is your favourite genre and/or authors? Kindle or actual book?
I buy a huge number of second hand books – I get through hundreds and hundreds in my line of work. As a result I don’t get much chance to indulge in fiction – perhaps only one or two books a year, depending on whether I get the chance to take a holiday. If I do manage to squeeze in some holiday reading I try to reset my brain with something totally different, usually science fiction: China Miéville, Stanislav Lem, Ursula K Le Guin ….
Is “Art London” available to purchase worldwide?
Yes! And please order it through local bookshops if you can, they need our support.
Personal now – what outfits and shoes would you normally be found wearing?
Always flat shoes – Converse or Supergas – art critics spend a lot of time on their feet. I’m usually in a dress: my frocks start life as evening wear and slowly filter down into my everyday wardrobe and then my dog walking and gardening outfits over the course of a decade or so. Like many in the art world I struggle with an unshakeable attraction to black clothing.
Do you have any favourite shops or online sites?
Vintage costume jewellery from eBay.
Boots or Shoes?
A solid pair of boots – I’m on my feet for hours every day.
Links you would like to share e.g. website/facebook etc
My personal Instagram account it @hettiejudah – artworks from the exhibitions I visit, and very occasionally a picture of my dog.I started a separate Instagram account for Art London. For practical reasons we couldn’t show all the artworks and artists mentioned in the book – it would have been thousands of pages long – so @artlondon_book is a picture gallery for curious readers.
Thank you Hettie – it has been such a pleasure chatting to you and it was such a privilege to read and thumb through the preview of “Art London”. I’m so excited to check out some new venues! I’m also looking forward to reading your biography of Frida Kahlo – sounds really interesting.
Photos: All photos (apart from the last one for Pinterest) are by Alex Schneideman and have been published with kind permission from Hettie Judah and photographer Alex Schneideman. The Pinterest photo was taken by myself, Linda Hobden – Street Art at a Market in Shoreditch, close to Liverpool Street Station.
“Art London” was published by ACC Art Books.