Sally Edwards from Blag Magazine interviewed Paul Jones:
“Elms Lesters Painting Rooms is a hidden treasure in a tiny little alleyway – some would say it’s overshadowed by brand new blocks and multi-million pounds real estate developments. We believe it was a beacon of light and creativity, a building that’s keys were passed to the hands of people who cared about originality, rather than carbon copies of successes in the hope of quick equity increase. More on that another time.
Elms Lesters Painting Rooms. Photography by Sarah J. Edwards for BLAG magazine
This building is unique, it holds vast stories and encounters, meetings and creations. It was built over 100 years ago as a Painting Room, for artists to create backdrops for theatres by Mr. Elms Lesters. What makes this place so special is on the outside, it looks quite small, yet inside there are rooms that are 40ft high. Talk about deceptively spacious. The unique structure sits slap bang in London’s West End between Covent Garden and Soho, just around the corner from the (in)famous, ‘Tin Pan Alley’ which was full of music shops punctuated by little pubs, where local characters held the fort. Elms Lesters became a place for raconteurs, forging friendships and a meeting spot for the like-minded brave enough to make things happen.
At the heart of it and the gentleman who brought about so many changes within its walls is Paul Jones, he tasked himself with turning a once unloved state of a building into an all star art gallery. One of their early exhibitions was pre-internet and produced to celebrate legendary writer, Charles Bukowski’s life.
Paul and his wife, Fiona have since exhibited some of the best contemporary artists I’ve been fortunate enough to see. It was here I met and reunited with José Parlá, Futura, Stash, WK Interact, Anthony Lister, Ron English and Phil Frost. Paul and Fiona would host wonderful launches with the building bursting at it seams, full of genuinely enthusiastic people. They would create prints, books and button badges for each artist, so those on the up could get a little piece of inspiration and the big collectors knew there was competition with red stickers being placed at record pace.
Elms Lesters Painting Rooms with circles spray painted by Futura 2000. Photography by Sarah J. Edwards for BLAG magazine
Sarah and I worked with Paul and Fiona to create documentaries on their subjects, meeting the – often jet lagged – artists as they set up home in Covent Garden, to create original works in the building, from scratch. When I’d pop in to see the artists-in-residence in action, the radio would blare from one area in the distance and friendly yells between rooms signalled show preparation. It was like a sanctuary and really quite meditative to go into this huge yet quiet, lively yet gentle place, smell the fresh paint and soak up that good, original energy.
Paul and Fiona have now left the building, but as ‘Elms Lesters’ they continue to represent the highly talented, Adam Neate having nurtured and encouraged him for well over a decade. Their story is unique and I wanted to share it with you, because I know it will encourage you to face fears, listen to what “you” are trying to tell yourself. It’ll let you know, if you’re down in the dumps or in a pickle, there is always light at the end of the tunnel and fresh air once that jar is opened..
Allow me to introduce Paul Jones…
Elms Lesters Painting Rooms, London has a real rich history. Please can you tell us about how you found it and how it felt to first get the keys in your hands?
What were your aspirations for the building and what you could achieve within it?
“I had worked nearby and was always fascinated by this extraordinary, derelict, dilapidated folly of a building. Taking the keys after recovering from a near fatal illness in the early eighties, with £50 in my pocket was daunting and anyone less foolish would have run a mile – but my dream was to create a gallery and I loved the spirit of the building. The first job was to get the scenic paint frames operative again and to resurrect that part of the business in order to facilitate the renovations. A friend in architectural salvage sold me the wooden floor for the gallery from the old Guildhall School of Music and Drama which was on the Embankment, the front doors and gallery doors were all from the Liverpool Street Station.
Built in 1904 by Mr. Elms Lesters it has had a chequered history, but I like to feel that during the 34 years I have been custodian I have raised its profile and shown it the love it deserves.”
You were involved in some groundbreaking businesses prior to being at Elms Lesters, can you pick some and tell us how that helped what you do with art?
“Ever since I had my first mod suit, made to measure, when I was 13, I’ve always had an interest in creative arts and fashion; I imported Afghan coats from Istanbul in the sixties which I sold in my stores [on] the Kings Road and mail order through NME. My first ad in the NME was the same day as Richard Branson’s when he was selling discounted records from a telephone box in Notting Hill [laughs]. After antique dealing in the seventies, I joined forces with Tommy Roberts and together we founded the legendary interior design shop, Practical Styling.
Paul Jones 1969
It has been said that one of the characteristic repeated patterns in my career has been the sudden instinctive changes of course, always striving to be ahead of the game in whichever discipline I immerse myself.
In business, as in art, you just have to start; too many people don’t start.”
“The scale of the building and its ingrained history really inspires artists and photographers. I’ve tried to keep hold of the essence of the building; thousands of artists, from world famous scenics, to internationally famous fine artists have painted here over it’s 113 years. Our earliest gallery artist who enjoyed painting under the forty foot glass ceilings was British painter Peter Denmark, who sadly died in 2014: it is his massive crucifix which has loomed over the large paint frame studio since he painted it in 1989. Since then artists include Brazilian Siron Franco, who worked in residence for six months in the nineties producing a whole museum exhibition for northern Brazil, US artists Stash, who painted a 40’ x 30’ “Great Wall of Krylon” freestyle graffiti piece, which was then cut up, framed and exhibited in our exhibition ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’, Futura 2000 and José Parlá who both painted exhibitions in residence, the inimitable Phil Frost who spent many, many, many months with us over the years, Anthony Lister both painted and created live installation in the painting rooms, and of course British painter Adam Neate has frequently painted in the studios at Elms Lesters. The scale, ambience and sense of freedom has definitely loosened up the artists’ styles, and shifted their scale up a gear.
I like to feel I have given them an opportunity to produce large scale ‘site-specific’ works at an earlier point in their careers than a conventional gallery might, they naturally make work to fit certain areas of the gallery, which means that exhibitions at the Painting Rooms always have a finely tuned feel.”
Please can you tell us about who you’ve hosted and sum up the artists’ work in a sentence each.
“Adam Neate: Adam is a truly unique artist, with an instant appeal everywhere; and his work literally takes on another dimension when seen in real life.
Futura 2000: A true legend – I see Futura as the Elvis of the graffiti world.
José Parlá: His work reflects his raw energy, sophisticated dynamism and charming character.
Phil Frost: Phil Frost stands alone – he is more than equal to any of his contemporaries and I am honoured he spent so much time painting in my studio over the years.
Ron English: The Grandaddy of Pop Surrealism – truly a one-off.
Boris Tellegen (Delta): Boris is an artist with true integrity, his own voice, and unwavering commitment to his work. THE true master of the Abstract Dimensional painting.
Stash: Stash is loved by all and was the originator of using the imagery and iconography of the spray can in his work – which is still being copied by many to this day…
KAWS: Truly grateful to having had the opportunity to host Kaws’ first European exhibition back in 2002, thanks to James Lavelle, Michael Kopelman and Fraser Cooke. KAWS has proved himself beyond question.
Anthony Lister: Anthony is undoubtedly Australia’s greatest export.
Dalek: A methodical, rhythmic, painter whose work retains it’s freshness on the wall.
WK Interact: You never ever forget the first street paste-up you saw of WK’s in New York; definitely one of the top three French contemporary artists in my opinion.
Space Invader: After decades of stoically and obsessively pursuing his International conceptual art project, he is finally getting the recognition he rightly deserves.
Andrew McAttee (Stet): I met Andrew when he was in his teens, and his exhibition “Suck It and See” in 1997, was our first ever street art show.”
You had a classic exhibition with none other than Charles Bukowski, please tell us about what you exhibited and how you think his writings and philosophies have impacted so many contemporaries.
“The exhibition came about from my love of his writing and a year after his death, I contacted his widow, Linda and said I’d love to stage an exhibition celebrating his life and work. She was deeply suspicious and thought I wanted to stage some ‘Planet Hollywood’ freak show. We got to know each other better over the course of months of late-morning (for me) and very, very late night / early morning (for her) telephone calls, friends were sent to check me and my intentions out and then a massive box containing the contents of Hank’s desk, clothing and memorabilia arrived and the exhibition started to take shape. This was pre-internet days and researching and curating the exhibition, which included rare documentary footage, photographs, paintings, as well as the staging of two plays, took massive effort and determination, but we had thousands of visitors, with queues around the block.
“His no-nonsense philosophy and ability to say something in two words, that would take others a page is what inspires me, and is a quality I look for in artists I work with.
In 1997 we stayed with Linda Bukowski in her and Hank’s house in San Pedro and visited his grave at Green Hills cemetery. His epitaph on his headstone reads “Don’t Try”
That’s the trouble with too many people, they TRY too hard, natural talent will come out.”
Adam Neate “The Hug” | Motion lenticular, 50 x 67 x 1 cm, Limited edition multiple of 18
You solely and exclusively represent Adam Neate. We’ve seen Adam’s work take on so much form, expansion and his confidence grown over the years. What is your working relationship like?
“Adam Neate is a force of nature. He approaches everything in his life with such a passion.
He is a devoted and loyal man, with boundless inspiration and creativity; I like to think we have a mutually respectful and supportive working relationship. I feel I have a responsibility to guide and support him and offer constructive criticism and positive feedback.
How do you inspire each other?
“When something is happening in a painting, I encourage him to follow it through and be open to change – I think it is so important for an artist to challenge themselves and keep it exciting – Adam is fearless and never ceases to amaze and inspire me.”
Everything is moving at a huge pace and there is so much access to art and creating art. What advice would you give for someone wanting to standout from the crowd and make a good living from being creative?
“Art is definitely the new black – everyone thinks they are a photographer or an artist now.
In order to succeed you have to be true to yourself – find your own voice. So many artists, writers and creatives emulate others and become derivative. It is a brave move to break new ground, but you have to be prepared to fail.
“As for ‘making a good living’ I have never been motivated by money, only ever seeing it as a means to an end to fund my dreams and enthusiasms. 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 life, it’s things you haven’t done that you regret.”
You’re very refreshing in your approach and support of artists, what do you think the future holds for genuine creativity?
“Times have changed, the current political and financial climate is making it increasingly difficult for young people to follow their dreams and be creative. In their favour they have the medium of social media to network and self promote.
“You can have all the plans in place, but it rarely turns out like you envisaged so take risks, and be adaptable. Don’t be afraid to change, if you can make progress in difficult times, then it bodes well for when things open up again. This current generation of emerging creatives will have to think on their feet and be nice to each other.”