Intrepid explorers have their guidebooks and maps in their hands as they explore the darkest corners of Fortnum and Masons in Piccadilly, London.
From the cells of Reading Prison to the luxury of Fortnum and Mason – two very different locations for art exhibitions, with two different set of artists. In 1844, when Reading Prison was built, Charles Fortnum and his successors had been in business as a grocer for 70 years, occupying a growing number of houses in Piccadilly, now all demolished. There is an interesting link with Reading in that Charles Fortnum described himself in his will of 1814, as “of Reading esquire”.
There is a history of art within Fortnum and Mason. Charles Drury Edward Fortnum (1820–1899), was a distinguished art collector and a Trustee of the British Museum to which he donated his collection of Islamic ceramics and, more recently, W. Garfield Weston, who acquired the business in 1951, had a reputation for popping out for lunch and coming back a few hours later with a new artwork from one of the Mayfair galleries. The link with art has been re-established in an exciting project with the eminent art collector Frank Cohen who has loaned works from his collection of modern British art which have been displayed from top to bottom across the store. Frank also established The Dairy in Bloomsbury which is currently closed due to redevelopment.
The Piccadilly shop windows are full of art by the likes of Tracy Emin, Brigit Riley and Lynn Chadwick. Maggie Hambling is overseeing everything inside from the top office floor, while other artists are located throughout the store. Charming Baker’s animal heads are grouped in a couple of different locations, including the first floor sculpture court which also has works by Keith Armitage, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Reg Butler, Barry Flanagan, Eduardo Paolozzi and Mark Quinn while the amusing sculpture “Dude Cowboy” by Nicholas Monroe has escaped, appropriately, to the menswear department. There is a complete wall of works by Stuart Pearson Wright.
The juxtaposition of modern art with traditional interiors is interesting. David Spiller’s Mickey Mouse hangs below a crystal candelabra and John Eardley’s “The Yellow Jumper” contrasts with a traditional classical fireplace above which it is hung….. but that’s part of the fun.
Some works are safely located behind tills, others are in the wine bar and restaurant areas, on staircases and in newly discovered private spaces such as the Cellar. Sadly, one of the works I most wanted most to see - Jake and Dinos Chapman’s “Unholy Trinity 3” – is in one of those inaccessible spaces.
Hopefully this will not be a one-off. It’s a win-win for art and for the store. Who needs an expensive new gallery when there are other locations like Fortnum and Mason? Oh, as an aside, the guide available for intrepid art explorers through the store, is excellent and I have certainly discovered parts of the store that I didn’t know existed.