Mayfair is of central importance to the international art trade. It is where the commercial art gallery originated 150 years ago, and today it is home to the largest concentrated art market in the world. The commercial galleries, auction houses and public art institutions that occupy the area are renowned, drawing collectors, cultural tourists and associated business to London from across the globe. The UK is the largest importer and exporter of art in Europe, and sales of fine art and antiques contributed £8bn to the British economy in 2013. A substantial proportion of this revenue is generated by Mayfair, where there are up to 100 retail galleries, four major international auction houses, and the Royal Academy of Arts, which receives over a million visitors a year.
The closing years of the 18th century saw London change with incredible speed. The population of the city of London was grew rapidly, from just over 100,000 in 1801 to over two million by the 1850s. In Mayfair, the foundations for what was to become the cradle of the modern art world were gradually being put in place.
When Mary Davies, the twelve-year-old daughter of a wealthy financier, came into her inheritance in 1677, it included 100 acres of what was termed ‘swampy meads’, south of Oxford Street and east Park Lane. These meadows were to change dramatically within a generation, when her son, Sir Richard Grosvenor, began the construction of Grosvenor Square in 1720. Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, observed: “I passed an amazing scene of new foundations,” he wrote in 1725. “Not of houses only, but, as I might say, of new cities, new towns, new squares and fine buildings, the like of which no city, no town, nay no place in the world can show.”
In 1815 Lord George Cavendish acquired Burlington House, the current home of the Royal Academy, and set about building Burlington Arcade, which had 72 retail units and was one of the first shopping arcades in England. Although he claimed that it was ‘built for the gratification of the publick, and to give employment to industrious females’, it is believed that his primary motivation for building it was actually to prevent people throwing shells from oysters – at that time a cheap convenience food – over the wall into his garden. The most fashionable shops, which were previously clustered around Mount Street, Davies Street and South Audley Street, began to move towards Bond Street. The area soon became a thriving centre for luxury shopping, so much so that Regent Street was designed as a new shopping thoroughfare in order to ensure that Bond Street retained its reputation for exclusivity and grandeur.
The Birthplace of the Modern Gallery
Mayfair played an increasingly important role as London moved into a central position on the international art world stage. During the late 18th century, numerous important European art collections were dispersed in auction sales as a result of the disruptions caused by the French Revolution. Many of these
auctions took place in Mayfair or in the close vicinity – Phillips was established on New Bond Street by 1797, Sotheby’s, just off the Strand, in 1744, and Christie’s held its first sale in 1766, down the road in Pall Mall.
As today, the art world of the 18th and 19th century was a complex web of businesses, encompassing exhibition societies, individual dealers, agents from abroad, aristocratic patrons, artists who sold directly from their studios, auctioneers that dispersed entire collections, engravers who copied images for worldwide distribution, as well as frame makers and picture restorers.
Gradually, however, a new breed of enterprise began to emerge, one that blended together the practices of artist-run exhibitions societies, such as the Royal Academy and the British Institution, with those of the flourishing retail trade. Dealers began to host a series of rotating exhibitions in dedicated premises, replete with private views, catalogues and sales staff, while maintaining regular shop hours and a constant supply of stock.
By the 1850s, many businesses were beginning to actively court luxury consumers, often using a move into Mayfair as an opportunity to restyle themselves as sellers of fine art, as oppose to antiquities, prints, decorative items or materials. Goupil Gallery, for example, advertised their move to Bond Street in 1883 thus:
‘[Goupil Gallery’s] removal to the most famous of West-end thoroughfares, will insure to them not only more frequent visitors from their present numerous amateurs, but also that their New Galleries may offer sufficient attraction to draw all interested in the Fine Arts to their establishment.’
Proximity to particular galleries and institutions were also influential in enticing more and more galleries to the area. The Royal Academy, which hosted the most important and popular exhibitions of the year, relocated to Burlington House on Piccadilly (where it is today) in 1867. Many galleries followed, and Bond Street, already associated with providing high-class services for an elite clientele, soon became identified with art. By the closing decades of the 19th century, it was, as one contemporary magazine critic remarked, “getting more and more like one elongated picture gallery tempered by tea shops!”
Alongside the Royal Academy, many of the galleries that helped to establish Mayfair’s cultural and commercial reputation in the 19th century maintain a presence today, such as Sotheby’s, Christie’s, the Fine Art Society, Colnaghi, and Agnew’s. The 20th century saw many more successful dealerships and galleries arrive and flourish in Mayfair; and were responsible for encouraging the careers of many of the most valued modern British painters, such as Barbara Hepworth, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud and David
Hockney, as well as playing a significant part in introducing artists from the continent and the USA to the UK audience.
Naturally other areas in London, such as Chelsea, Hoxton, Fitzrovia and Bermondsey, have also all offered important alternative art scenes. However, in recent years many galleries are choosing to return to Mayfair, in recognition that it is the epicenter of the art trade in Britain. White Cube, for instance, closed its Hoxton Square gallery and turned its attentions on a new space situated behind Piccadilly; Victoria Miro Gallery, based in Islington, opened an additional site on George Street; Phillips auction house has recently relocated its European headquarters to Berkeley Square.
Leading galleries from abroad have also arrived: David Zwirner Gallery on Grafton Street, Pace Gallery in Burlington Gardens and Michael Werner Gallery on Upper Brook Street all opened in 2012. Yet more will be joining them – Gagosian began work last year on a major new space in Grosvenor Hill.
These galleries are global businesses, and Mayfair once again finds itself at the heart of the international art world. According to the European Fine Art Foundation’s annual market report, in 2013 the UK accounted for 20 per cent of the world’s £37.8 bn art market. In combination with its selection of high- quality hotels and designer shops, for time-starved, culture-hungry international collectors, Mayfair is the perfect base from which to explore.
In the coming years, it is likely that Mayfair’s status as a cultural quarter will become increasingly established. The impending arrival of the new Crossrail station at Bond Street, the re-development of Cork Street and the renovation of the Royal Academy’s Burlington Gardens- linking it directly to Burlington House, its home for 150 years – will continue to strengthen Mayfair’s historic position at the centre of the international art world.
Find out more about Brown’s London Art Weekend here.