The timber steps are worn down with generations of workmen carrying tools, materials and finished products up and down the staircase. Close your eyes and you can hear them shouting at each other above the noise of machinery and hammering and, perhaps, the odd gunshot. Originally a 18th century family home with a ground floor shop, for many years from 1925 to the end of the 20th century No 79 Beak Street in Soho in London was the home of gunmaking for the firm of John Wilkes, originally founded in Birmingham around 1820. As families moved out of Soho, it became a centre for many industries including the gun trade, as it was able to provide affordable workshop premises and showrooms within easy reach of clients’ London homes in Mayfair, Knightsbridge and Kensington.
The twentieth century saw many changes, including a shortage of skilled craftsmen after the Second World War and a brief revival in gun and rifle production in the 1970’s. It was decided to leave the premises, the shop was vacated in July 2003 and now has a new life as the Rifleman Gallery which shows work of contemporary and emerging artists within the historic atmosphere of this old building.
Judy Chicago (born 1939) is an American feminist artist, educator and writer best known for her large collaborative art installations which examine the role of women in history and culture. Three of her works painted on car hoods are on show in the exhibition “The World Goes Pop” at Tate Modern. Chicago chose car hoods as they reflect both the traditional male ego and the challenges Chicago has faced in the art world. Drawings which relate to the car-hood sculptures are currently on display in the Riflemaker Gallery, along with other works, sculptures and ceramics, including protype ceramics and drawings for the textiles for her major work “The Dinner Party” now in the Brooklyn Museum which took her five years to complete and consists of a large triangular table, on which there are 39 different place settings, each celebrating a historical or mythical female figures.
Other works are on show by Wen Wu, Marta Marce and Josephine King (born 1965) whose work, linking to moments from her life, also has feminist themes and, a nice touch, a painting by William Burroughs that contains a gun, relating back to the history of the building.