The Illustrious History of Cork Street
In this article for The Net Gallery, writer Jo Caird explores the history of Cork Street, one of London’s most prestigious art streets, and explains how it continues to play an important role in the art scene today.
The list of artists championed by galleries on Cork Street reads like a who’s who of the 20th-century art world. Francis Bacon, Eva Hesse, Peter Blake, Agnes Martin, Vasily Kandinsky and Roy Lichtenstein are just a few of those whose careers were launched or nurtured on this little street in Mayfair since it became a hub for the London art scene nearly a century ago.
The last few years has been a tumultuous time for Cork Street, with two multi-million pound property developments giving rise to a major — and unpopular — shakeup of its community of galleries. But with four new spaces opening there this month to coincide with Frieze London & Frieze Masters 2020 Edition, it feels like Cork Street might just be getting its mojo back.
On the eve of this new wave of openings, we look to the past to explore the origins of Cork Street as an art destination, putting the recent changes in the context of almost 100 years of modern and contemporary art history.
The Early Days
Cork Street hasn’t always been synonymous with the art scene. Built as part of the Burlington Estate in 1718, it was home to grand houses owned by the sorts of people who split their time between London residences and country estates. The street is named for its developer: the Earl of Burlington, owner of nearby Burlington House (location of the Royal Academy of Arts since 1867), also held the title of Earl of Cork.
No houses from that period remain but numbers 7 and 19–20 date from 1814–18. Walk down the street today and you’ll find a mixture of Victorian and modern buildings, including the work of leading British architect Sir David Chipperfield, who was involved in one of the recent development projects on the street.
Cork Street’s first galleries
At number 19–20 you’ll find one of the oldest galleries on the street. The Redfern Gallery was founded in 1923 on Old Bond Street as a small artists’ cooperative (where it showed student work by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth) and moved into larger premises on Cork Street in 1936. While many galleries were unable to stay open during the second world war, the Redfern kept exhibiting throughout the period, including artists such as Paul Nash and Eileen Agar. The gallery has maintained its focus on modern British and contemporary art to this day, with recent exhibitions from the likes of John Carter RA, Patrick Proctor and William Gear.
The first gallery to open on the street is also still in operation, though it’s moved location since those early days. Fred Mayor founded the Mayor Gallery in 1925, giving the likes of Alexander Calder, Max Ernst and Eduardo Paolozzi their first English exhibitions. Today you’ll find work by an eclectic range of international artists.
Another celebrated gallerist that once found a home on Cork Street was Peggy Guggenheim. Guggenheim actually opened her first gallery, Guggenheim Jeune, on the street in 1938, bringing the work of Vasily Kandinsky to England for the first time.
Cork Street’s galleries continued to be a launch pad for British artists as the decades passed but it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the community here. In 1985 the artist collective Grey Organisation vandalised several Cork Street gallery windows (including the Mayor Gallery) with grey paint. This “art terrorist action” was meant as a protest at the lack of support for emerging artists.
More recently Cork Street has been the site of protest once again, but this time by the gallery owners themselves. In 2012, when plans were announced for the redevelopment of part of the street, the community of 22 galleries came together to lobby the council to safeguard the street’s unique character. Gallerists were concerned that smaller independent galleries would be unable to afford the increased rents once the development projects were complete, and that the new commercial units would be inherently unsuitable as exhibition spaces.
The Save Cork Street Campaign got over 15,000 signatures but didn’t succeed in stopping the development. As predicted, a large number of galleries closed down permanently or moved to new premises elsewhere in the wake of the development. Those that remained have been joined by exciting new arrivals, however, such as Nahmad Projects and Messums London, which both opened in 2016. South Africa’s celebrated Goodman Gallery followed, opening its first London space on Cork Street in 2019.
A Bright Future?
This month two leading galleries — Sadie Coles HQ and Lisson Gallery — will launch pop-up spaces on Cork Street, and Frieze will be showing its Frieze Live programme here too. Sadie Coles HQ will be in residence into November, while Lisson is booking exhibitions into spring 2021.
Most excitingly of all, in terms of the future of Cork Street, is the arrival of Saatchi Yates on 15 October. This new player on the scene will be a permanent addition to the street and comes with a strong focus on emerging talent, dedicated over half of its 10,000 square feet to work by unknown artists.
It may take a few years yet for Cork Street to bounce back after the rupture caused by the redevelopment on the street. But if recent gallery arrivals are anything to go by, Cork Street is on the up again.