Rory Menage is a young British sculptor. He is a Yorkshireman, and carves his pieces from blocks of limestone, wood and polystyrene, which are then transformed into cast iron or bronze. He doesn’t deny a deep respect for Henry Moore: "He fought in the trenches, was gassed at Cambrai, went back to art school in Leeds and London, then stuck to his principles of carving figurative work that looked beyond the Western canon. He made Europeans look again at Central American, Congolese and Cycladic sculpture.’
There’s been much said about artists being forced out to the sticks – in search of studio space amid escalating rent prices. Menage, too, is an example of this – his new studio is relatively far out in Forest Hill, south London, beyond peachy Dulwich. But perks include it being in a Grade II-listed building with a meadow-like garden. He says he pays a lord’s ransom for the place, and it wouldn’t be viable without another artist he shares with.
Previously he was in a windowless studio on the Old Kent Road in south-east London. He says that the space was good for messy work, but the lack of light was an inhibiting factor.
Most London studios have long, winding waiting lists of eager artists seeking a little space to work alongside like-minded others.
Rachel Campbell-Johnston, the Times’s chief art critic, has reported that Somerset House, the stately, neoclassical building slap-bang in central London by Waterloo Bridge, will be opening affordable space for creatives.
This is big art world news and a clear nod to time gone by. How come? Campbell-Johnston harps back to ‘the glory days of British Art’; a time when ‘you could pitch up at some Soho watering hole and quite likely stumble across an excitable artistic gaggle, drinking, arguing and juggling outlandish ideas’. History has shown that artists flock to where they can afford space, and make that their base – be that Shoreditch, Charleston in Sussex, or St Ives in Cornwall.
The artists’ community in Forest Hill doesn’t quite emulate that of Fifties Paris, where at Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres district, the likes of Picasso, and Breton would mix with great thinkers such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. Nor does it rival anarchic Sixties Soho, where Freud and Bacon would be found downing half-pints at the French House on Dean Street, talking art and ideas.
But, it does have a tasty pizza joint that Menage frequents, chattering in Italian – which he studied at Oxford University, before returning to Yorkshire to study for an MA at Leeds College of Art.
At Somerset House Studios, by the end of this year, and under the directorship of Jonathan Reekie, there should be 120 artists in residence. Then, shortly after, another 200 studios will open, following a recent donation from the London Mayor’s office. Art today is multidisciplinary, and the studios will be tailored to that, offering desk or studio space – depending on whether you practise as a fine artist, an interpretative dancer or a digital guru.
British artists may be flocking out to Margate, Sheffield and the edges of Greater London – but how many will consider applying (perhaps returning) for a space at the very core of its capital? Will they be disenchanted by the extortionate price of coffee or the uptight business people milling about in their lunch hour?
Has London’s city centre simply changed too much from what it was in the glory days of Freud, Bacon and anarchic Soho? Hopefully, the Somerset House Studios circle will encompass the academics studying at the Courtauld Institute – whose alumni include Booker Prize-winning Anita Brookner and arts critic Alastair Sooke.
Rory says, ‘Somerset House is a rare success story in a tough climate, and every year there are tens of thousands of new graduates looking for studio space.’ He anticipates that places farther out, such as Croydon, Enfield and Watford, will be the new hideouts.
My gut feeling is that I’d probably be happier in Menage’s suburban plot in Forest Hill than in Somerset House – but each to their own.