This week I went to the press breakfast for the Fortnum's X Frank launch. This is a really unique and exciting free art show, fusing striking works of modern art with a very British institution – the historical and elegant space that is the Fortnum and Mason department store. They are calling this one of the boldest projects in their 300 year history – displaying items from the private collection of renowned art collector Frank Cohen throughout the store for all to see. After the grand unveiling of the shop's windows (displaying some works of art of course), we had a beautiful breakfast (above), and welcome talks from Fortnum's CEO and from Frank himself. Then we were treated to a private tour with the show's curator, Robert Upstone, and had the chance to talk to some of the artists involved, including Jake Chapman and Stuart Pearson Wright.
As Robert Upstone explained, this is an exciting opportunity to not just take art to a new environment, but to new audiences – to disrupt the everyday, but to also make the everyday special. If you don't know Fortnum's, it's a real London treasure – an old-fashioned building where the staff wear full waistcoated suits, and the doormen are in top hat and tails. Being the Queen's grocer, it's always packed with tourists who come for a slice of English heritage, enjoying afternoon tea and picking up some exquisitely designed tea caddies and biscuit barrels. Robert said that gallery spaces affect how we view works of art, therefore the way in which we navigate a shop will impact upon how we see the art works. Wandering round, I loved seeing pieces that would normally be displayed in a very clean, clinical gallery space. In a large gallery you can become immune to the power of some paintings, you might skip one or two, but these works when spaced out and juxtaposed with the layout of the store demand your attention.
Fortnum's is all fancy staircases and tables laid out with delectable wares. The traditional mingling with the surreal and obscure is really special. The store was closed to the public when we were there, so in a way it was still a quiet contemplative gallery-esque environment, I will have to pop back and see how the exhibition works when they're busy.
The placement of the art was really interesting, for example, the take on masculinity in Nicholas Monro's 1976 sculpture Dude Cowboy (below) placed in the middle of the menswear section, and the haunting pop art Unholy Trinity 3 (2003) by Jake and Dinos Chapman in Fortnum's Crypt – only open to the public when hired for wine tastings and other events requiring a spooky cellar space.
A really special part of the tour, apart from seeing areas usually closed to the public, like the cellar (above) and the board room, was hearing from the artists themselves. Stuart Pearson Wright (below) has a whole gallery wall dedicated to his paintings, and spoke to us about how Frank Cohen first became interested in collecting his work. Side note: it must be super weird and yet also flattering to have a collector want practically everything you create. I have regular readers who tell me they read everything I write, but I don't spend months and months working on one piece and then see it taken off, not belonging to me anymore. I should have asked Stuart how it feels. Anyhoo, Stuart did say that one of the reasons Frank became interested in him in the first place is because he'd sold a portrait of John Hurt to the National Portrait Gallery. This only come about because whilst he was still a student he saw John Hurt walking down the street and chased after him, asking him to sit for him. It just goes to show, he who dares wins.
When you're walking through the store, it's hard not to covet all the gorgeous things, and I'm talking about Fortnum's nice tea pots and trinkets. They have a whole section of shiny gold autumnal ornaments, and for a moment I spent a bit too long looking at these and missing what Robert was saying on the tour. Like all good galleries have a gift shop, this experience is a bit like being in a giant gift shop, and instead of post cards of the art around you, it's the actual art. I'm not complaining, I don't mind the mix of luxury capitalism and culture, they serve each other well – especially when it comes to helping the work of artists be seen to new and bigger audiences. I'd recommend popping in and having a good look round, or at the very least having a look at the window displays. As Robert said, these are unusual because art work usually faces inwards in a space, and now it's having the chance to face out in to the world in the shop windows. As we left we were given amazing goody bags with Fortnum's tea, biscuits and jam, and having scoffed some of these I would definitely recommend picking up some of their speciality items. A unique shop, a brilliant idea, a perfect way to spend an afternoon and have a very London experience.
Fortnum's X Frank is open every day from 10am-9pm, except Sunday 11.30am-6pm, and ends on October 15th