Since the early l8th Century, London has enjoyed a thriving art market; controversy about contemporary art is nothing new. In l760 and l761, as Godfrey Barker writes in The Art Book (published to coincide with Art Fortnight London), the police were called to the Society of Arts picture exhibitions, and arrested a crowd angry with the Old Masters.
Hogarth, who loathed the taste for the old, and was very much on the side of living art, had provoked this expression of popular opinion. He had drawn a cartoon of a monkey with an eyeglass, dressed as a fop, emptying a watering can onto three dead trees in pots. The crowd rioted, many were arrested and, as Barker concludes, this marked the point at which art in London became truly popular.
Three centuries later, art is possibly even more popular and indeed controversial in London. Certainly such events as the shortlist for The Turner Prize provoke heated national debate. For the past decade, since the emergence of the YBA generation, many of whom are now heading successfully (or not) toward their mid-careers, London has become a highly important seed-bed for younger artists emerging every summer like butterflies from a chrysalis from the many art schools in the capital. Much cutting edge contemporary British art ranks amongst the most challenging in the world at the present time. But contemporary art is by no means the whole London story.
The range and diversity of galleries in this city is truly extraordinary as can be seen in The Art Book, a catalogue of all the participating galleries.
Art Fortnight London, which runs from 21 June to 7 July, has been planned to reflect the mainstream position that art now plays in British, and, indeed, international culture. It is a totally new concept, linking together as it does Londons commercial art community - the art galleries and the auction houses - with the capitals leading museums and galleries to demonstrate to the art world the richness and diversity of Londons cultural life. It is not a fair, rather is it an art tent under whose canopy the visitor can easily observe many diverse and often quite unexpected strands. This the first time that art galleries, auction houses and museums have all come together to ensure a tight programme with genuine depth and breadth.
Spearheaded by Angela Nevill of Nevill Keating Tollemache, currently Chairman of the Society of London Art Dealers, whose original idea this was, Art Fortnight London celebrates Londons importance as one of the two main centres of the international art market, and its reputation as a trend-setting art and culture capital.
It consists of a special high-season two-week citywide series of events to attract a new generation of collectors to London. There are summer exhibitions at over 70 participating London art galleries of work ranging from Old Master pictures to contemporary installation pieces. The summer season Impressionist, Modern, Contemporary and Old Master Picture and Drawings auctions take place during this period and promise much.
In addition, over forty extremely varied cultural events have been planned. These range from a gala launch party at Tate Modern the proceeds of which will be donated to the Tate. This gala is for 800 collectors, gallerists and international museum directors. There are lectures and debates, behind-the-scene tours, limited-access studio visits, private views, receptions, galas, art parties and after parties. You can view a cutting edge contemporary collection and a collection of Rembrandt prints in the extraordinary surroundings of a l8th Century Mayfair house, built in l747 for the then Lord Howe, or go to a season of contemporary artists films, or do a Sunday brunch walking tour of West End galleries.
A rare opportunity to look behind the scenes at the UK Government Art Collection, a lecture at The British Museum on George III and Queen Charlotte Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste by Jane Roberts, Librarian and Curator of the Print Room at Windsor Caste, jostles with a Gilbert & George signing of the new book Introducing Gilbert & George by Robert Rosenbloom at White Cube. East End art tours are on the itinerary as are specially organised curated talks on this summers exhibitions at major museums including Tate Britain, The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery, The Dulwich Picture Gallery and The Wallace Collection
London has always had a lively and productive interplay between the commercial and museum worlds and as this fortnight will raise funds and support for Londons major museums and galleries, it will also create a platform to increase awareness of London as a capital of culture.
MEREDITH ETHERINGTON-SMITH is a writer and launch Director of Art Fortnight London.