Paul Jones, interviewed at Elms Lesters, 24 Jul & 1 Aug 2008 for Elms Lesters Painting Rooms
This essay was first published in the ELMS LESTERS book
“Working with street artists is the thing I’ve been most successful with in my life and I believe it’s because it fits with me. This is the first art movement to have come from the streets and the first time a movement has come out of teenagers talking about art. I’m from the streets; I’m South London, Millwall Football Club, left school at 15. I’m in the same world as most of these artists. The artists we represent have a street head and, like me, when they started none of them had plotted out a career.”
When he was 13, Paul’s street sensibility was focused on sartorial self-expression. That’s the age he was when he ordered his first made-to-measure suit from Burton with the money saved from his three weekend jobs, one of which was handing out baskets at the door of Price Right supermarket in Downham, Southeast London.
“I’d spend three weeks’ wages on a cardigan or jumper from Aquascutum because it was the best around. I’d have 20 shirts hanging up in my bedroom – pink, blue and purple – I used to have them hand-made by a woman in Deptford.”
Paul was a regular at the first mod shop in Carnaby Street.
“It was called Adonis but, being ignorant of Greek mythology, we used to think it was called A. Doni’s!”
By 16, he was what they called a “top mod” in London, frequenting the capital’s first nightclub, La Discothèque, which opened in 1960 in Wardour Street, Soho. He’d arrive on his Vespa with his cockatoo haircut, Denton pointer shoes and of course that fitted Burton suit. Another of the so-called top mods was Mark Feld, who worked for a time in the cloakroom of La Discothèque and went on to become supremo glam-rocker Marc Bolan.
“I remember going to La Discothèque for the first time and telling friends wide-eyed ‘they’ve got mattresses on the third floor where you can lounge out’. This was the first time a nightclub stayed open until 2 am. Burton used to have dance halls above their shops, but they always closed at 11 pm. The routine after a top night out was leave the club at 2 am, go down to Fleet Street to one of the all-night newspaper cafés, then Petticoat Lane to sit on the wall and listen to records then maybe scooter on down to Brighton or Clacton and sleep off the morning on the beach.”
Travel further afield came as soon as he was 18. Paul’s mother had always instilled into her son “always lead, never follow” and, in line with his characteristically individualised interpretation of the motto, he quit a job with prospects running the wages for a trader at Spitalfields Market. His boss had told him to get his hair cut. That lunchtime, he walked straight down to The Minories near Tower Hill where next door to the Royal Mint was a merchant navy recruiting office. He signed up on the spot for a four-month Blue Star Line world cruise.
“It completely changed my head, that merchant navy journey around the world. I’d be washing up, doing menial tasks and I’d be watching the people in first class. At 18, whereas other merchant seamen were saving their earnings for when they got home, if I was in Tahiti, say, I’d take out every single penny I’d earned and spend it all in a posh restaurant in the Tahitian Hotel where the first-class crowd were going.”
Paul feels there’s a link between the Sixties and the contemporary cultural scene, both then and now sharing a sense of open possibilities and creative opportunity. One of the characteristic repeated patterns in Paul’s career has been sudden instinctive changes of course. Perennially unafraid to be an original Absolute Beginner in each new project he’s taken on, resolutely ahead of the game in whichever discipline he immerses himself, he thinks laterally, embracing unpredictable future consequences by committing himself to the present moment.
Maintaining that money in itself has never interested him, he says he only ever saw it as a means to an end to fund his schemes and enthusiasms. His save-nothing, borrow-nothing, all-in approach to spending for the here and now, an unwavering commitment to a kind of latter-day Epicureanism, is a philosophical approach to life Paul tries to inculcate in his collector clients who visit the gallery. I once overheard Paul earnestly advising a wealthy collector to spend as much as he could on his street artists, to catch the movement as it was taking off. He said something along the lines of “If I was a collector I’d be spending everything I had on these artists”, but when Paul says it, it doesn’t sound paradoxical or come across as hard-sell sales’ speak. He’s always maintained the unequivocal conviction that both the movement’s importance and his own artists’ unique creative abilities ultimately would be recognised.
“I feel like the gallery out of all my business ventures has been the hardest. No one needs a painting or print, it’s different with a T-shirt or a table. I never worried about going broke or not, or whether I could do it. I always believed I could succeed in whatever it was I was doing. You just have to go and do it and if you fail, that doesn’t mean anything. When you look back on regrets, it’s things you haven’t done.”
During his helmsmanship of Elms Lesters over the past 25 years, Paul has seen the art buyer’s profile change in parallel with the development of the artists themselves, from barely teenage graffiti writers to mature artists with multi-dimensional oeuvres entering eclectic international collections.
When he became custodian in 1983, the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms had been long neglected. Their character was undoubted, but this old sceneography studio with the original 1904 paint frames still installed was otherwise derelict.
Inauspiciously perhaps, during the Middle Ages the city gallows had been sited at nearby St. Giles’ Circus, the location today of the monolithic Centrepoint. By the 17th century what was practically a no-go area called “The Rookeries” encompassed what is now Great Russell Street, Denmark Street and Flitcroft Street, the last named after Henry Flitcroft, the architect who in 1734 completed the neighbouring church of St. Giles, patron saint of untouchables. It continued to be a slum area notorious for its poverty and squalor, a place for vagrants, exiles and outcasts.
A secret criminal language known as “thieves’ cant” was spoken in The Rookeries and the infamous St. Giles’ area became the setting for William Hogarth’s satirical Gin Lane and Beer Street etchings which depict the drunken pariahs of 18th-century London in penury. In the background of Hogarth’s 1751 prints you can see the church tower of St. Giles’ exactly as it remains today, right next door to where the Painting Rooms were built over a century later. A more historically apposite part of the capital in which to plant the seeds of street art would be hard to imagine.
In the late Eighties, after mounting his first exhibition by offering the scene painters who rented the scenic paint frames a group show, Paul moved on to dealing in Pop Art prints by British exponents of the movement like Riley, Blake and Hamilton. The early Nineties was spent showing work by international contemporary artists like José de Guimaraes at a time when conventional wisdom in the commercial gallery world was to show British artists. Brazilian painter Siron Franco came over for three months and made 20 works responding to London. Although he had a hotel room, he worked mainly from a tent on the upper floor of the gallery. Then Stash took advantage of the expansive Elms Lesters paint frames to make a 50-feet long “wild style” composition which Paul suggested cutting up into sections to experiment with producing a series of smaller abstract works.
The particularity of this high-ceilinged, wedge-shaped space continues to elicit unexpected developments in artists who use it as a temporary residence as Paul encourages them to do, in order to open up their practice.
“Elms Lesters is a daylight studio, purpose-built for painting, with 40-feet high glass ceilings, and with one hundred years of paint splashed on the walls, it’s inspiring. I’ve found that two things can happen – an artist’s technique loosens up and their scale shifts up a gear.”
Certainly, Paul has given his artists an opportunity to produce large scale “site-specific” works at an earlier point in their careers than a conventional gallery might. Partly, it keeps the developing gallery artist in touch with the scale of the street and as much as the inspiration of the space it is the supportive family atmosphere that Paul, his partner Fiona and their children provide which produces such extraordinary results. Now that their artists know the spatial idiosyncrasies of the gallery’s interior so well, they naturally make work to fit certain areas of it, which means that exhibitions at the Painting Rooms always have a finely tuned feel.
“The essence of an Elms Lesters artist is that they’ve all got their own style and they’re all leaders in their own fields with that style. I often see elements of my artists’ work in the work of new artists coming through in art school shows that I go and see, like they’re pursuing a similar path.”
Paul feels, moreover, that the growing rarity of the individualised artistic voice corresponds inversely to the burgeoning ranks of the urban art snowball with fame the ultimate goal, bypassing hard work and original style. This he says is one reason why he hasn’t actively been looking for new artists to add to the stable since starting to work with young British sensation Adam Neate.
And after working with a number of different business partners over the years – on entrepreneurial projects as diverse as early mobile phones and answering machines, hi-tech furniture design, car dealing, a clothes shop called Greenwich Family which sold Afghan coats he bought in Turkey from Sherpas coming down from the Russian borders, and prototype bags for men – he can’t imagine improving on the synergy he discovered nearly 30 years ago with business and life partner Fiona McKinnon. A potter originally, she is an equal part of the energy behind the curatorial hanging of exhibitions and brings her artistic sensibilities to bear on the high-quality publications that the gallery now produces to mark each exhibition.
“My partners were always sharp”, Paul admits. “I was more wayward. I’ve always been in the background, instigating things like a midfield general in football where you pass the ball and they run with it. I didn’t like being up front – if I scored it was a fluke – and I’ve never wanted to be anyone else.”
This comment may offer an insight into the fundamental quality Paul shares with the artists he has worked with over the past quarter century, a reluctance to emulate. Original thinking obviates the need, he would argue.
“Gandhi said ‘Be the change you want to see’ and I agree with that. Here’s an example: during my time in antiques, things were quiet in London for a while so I filled a van with furniture and drove to Amsterdam. I booked into a fleapit hotel and tried to hawk the gear around Dutch antiques shops, selling nothing. The money I had in my pocket I worked out would afford me a couple of nights in a 4-star hotel so I moved from the fleapit, got a good night’s sleep, woke up with a new head, had a lovely breakfast, went out again and sold everything in that van.”
Asking Paul about his biggest regret, nothing immediately occurs to him. Apart from in his late teenage years with the merchant navy perhaps; not jumping ship in Tahiti when offered a job crewing on a tea clipper sailing the South Sea islands. But what about in his business career, enduring as he has such Hogarthian reversals of fortune from one enterprise to the next? There must be something on reflection he would have done differently. Ever obliging the dogged interviewer, Paul manages to appear to answer yes whilst ultimately answering no.
“The day I opened the hi-tech furniture shop Practical Styling with my business partner Tommy Roberts – he was the first guy to put Mickey Mouse on a T-shirt – I decided to go and have a quick look in Habitat to size up the competition, I hadn’t got round to it before then. When I walked in I was thinking to myself ‘If I’d seen all this earlier I wouldn’t have bothered’; I’m glad I didn’t see it!”
Does this translate to witnessing more recent competition in the form of Tate Modern’s high-profile Street Art season? Would Paul perhaps lament Summer 2008 as the moment an outlaw tendency in art became institutionalised and potentially homogenised, or does he see it as validating the minority conviction he has long held towards a group of artists at Elms Lesters whose international development he continues to champion? As ever, his is the optimist’s viewpoint that, when it comes to recognition at least, inclusivity beats exclusivity.
“I feel that for Tate it’s a step towards buying major street artists for the permanent collection in the next five or ten years. All of a sudden they’ve got behind the movement and it’s sent out the signal worldwide. In business, as in art, you just have to start; too many people don’t start. I feel eventually that Tate will be buying these artists and the murals on the front of Tate Modern signal the beginning of that happening. As far as the Elms Lesters stable of artists is concerned, I don’t feel like I’ve been proved right; the work’s been proved right.”
Ben Jones July/Aug/Sep 2008