In 2018, The Fine Art Society (FAS) shut up shop at its historic home in New Bond Street, Mayfair, London.
After two years of searching and preparation, it is now reopening on Carnaby Street in nearby Soho, where plans include keeping a tighter rein on the breadth of its offerings and maintaining closer ties with its Edinburgh location.
The official relaunch comes with the show Twenty Twenty, featuring a mix of British art and design from the 19th and 20th centuries – starting the gallery off very much as it means to continue.
The exhibition runs from October 2-November 14, while a show of the same title takes place in the Edinburgh gallery from September 25-November 14, featuring Scottish art spanning 300 years. Prices across the stagings range from £450-170,000.
FAS’s return to bricks-and-mortar premises in London will be heartening for its clients and also suggests that the future of the capital’s trade can look different without going entirely virtual.
The move away from Mayfair is a familiar story by now. Rising rents following the increased demand from global luxury and fashion retailers have forced many of the more traditional galleries to vacate their street-level premises.
The former FAS space was taken at the time by Contemporary art giant Halcyon Gallery.
While within easy striking distance of centres such as Mayfair, St James’s and Belgravia, Soho is generally considered a quirkier and younger part of the capital.
It hosts Contemporary galleries such as Karsten Schubert London, Frith Street Gallery and Amanda Wilkinson gallery.
FAS, on the other hand, represents 19th and early 20th century figures such as James McNeill Whistler, Walter Sickert and Augustus Pugin, as well as a selection of more recent artists.
Nevertheless, FAS managing director Rowena Morgan-Cox is confident about the premises, a Grade-II listed Georgian townhouse on the pedestrianised shopping hub of Carnaby Street.
“The delay in finding a new space was because we wanted something smaller but also quite special,” Morgan-Cox tells ATG.
“Soho has the character needed. It has that artistic, bohemian history.”
The firm has continued to sell since it left Mayfair – most notably auctioning £2.7m worth of its stock in a dedicated 300-lot auction at Sotheby’s in February 2019.
However, Twenty Twenty will be its first in-gallery exhibition in more than two years and is set to mark a true return to form.
“There has been business done in the meantime, but it does really feel like a comeback,” Morgan-Cox says. “You can sell online, but you need to have that relationship with your clients.”
The core of the London business remains much the same. Morgan-Cox plans to “refine and cement” its specialist areas, working with artists and designers, both famous and less-well-known, especially those with a past at the gallery.
Meanwhile, it is also planning more work in conjunction with its Edinburgh location. Founded in 1972, the Scottish premises spreads across two floors of a gallery on Dundas Street.
Previously the galleries existed fairly independently with separate websites and exhibition programmes. Edinburgh has continued its shows during the past two years.
Now, however, the galleries are aligning their exhibition programme, starting with Twenty Twenty. Plans include an annual Scottish show staged by the northern location in the Soho gallery.
Viewing in person
For Emily Walsh, FAS group managing director, the firm’s continued emphasis on physical premises is welcome, particularly after witnessing the reaction to lockdown.
“People had a real sadness not to be able to see their favourite picture,” she says. “It’s important to have that chance to stand in front of a work of art.”
Even so, she admits, the world is changing. Nowhere is the link between the two FAS locations more obvious than on the company’s recently relaunched website.
Along with listing the two galleries’ schedules and stock, it offers digital viewing rooms combining items from each gallery.
One reason to have such a highly developed website is to reach a wider, more international base of buyers.
However, Walsh points out, as the recent lockdown has proved, “you don’t have to be international to have trouble accessing a gallery. These days you have to build your offering in the round.”