‘We want to preserve the spirit of the studio, and nurture artists'

As Hampstead Art Society announces its second open competition, Dan Carrier talks to two of the judges

Thursday, 17th March — By Dan Carrier

Mari Tskiria

Mari Tskiria

WHEN peace broke out in May 1945, artist Henry Kay Henrion could start to make more permanent plans.

The German exile, who had settled in London, fulfilled a long-held dream when he received the keys to a new studio in Pond Street, Hampstead. Now home to the Hampstead Art Society, the studios offer affordable work space – and this spring, the society has announced its second annual competition.

Open to all, last year saw more than 550 entries from more than 50 artists, ranging across various mediums. And organiser Mari Tskiria told Review how the competition aimed to both honour the legacy of the artist who founded the Hampstead Art Studios and provide a platform for contemporary figurative artists.

After Henrion’s death in 1990, his late widow Marion ensured the studios continued to provide a home for artists.

Mari, who is also an artist, told Review the competition was a way of preserving what mattered to Henri.

“I moved there seven years ago and started a collective with other artists at the studio,” she says. “We want to preserve the spirit of the studio, and nurture artists and provide a place for creativity to flourish.”

And the studios, which include an extension designed by Richard Rogers, remains today a bubbling cauldron of artistic creativity. It reflects Hampstead’s tradition, adds Mari. “The area has always been associated with the likes of John Constable, Henry Moore, Piet Mondrian,” she says.

Henrion was born in Germany and in his early career he designed textiles and graphics. He trained for a time in Paris, but the growing Nazi threat saw him move to London via Tel Aviv.

Mari Tskiria’s Self Portrait with a Cigarette

During a brief period of internment when the war started he was held in the Isle of Man – but his talent, Jewish roots and political views meant the government eventually realised he was not an enemy alien.

He would turn this hand to producing one of the most important and memorable public information posters of the period, working on campaigns such as Dig for Victory.

His wide-ranging work saw him design pavilions for the 1951 Festival of Britain, logos and trademarks including the Post Office, The National Theatre, Tate and Lyle, KLM and Blue Circle cement. And as well as symbols and corporate identities, he made jewellery, furniture and even designed sewing machines.

Henrion, who was awarded an OBE in 1985, taught art at the Central School of Art and Design, the Royal College of Art and the London College of Printing – and his interest in education also fits in with the aims of the competition, add the organisers.

Judge Joshua Press said it was a way of celebrating forms of artwork that can be neglected.

“From our discussions, there was a feeling there are not a lot of exhibitions that adequately show the quality of figurative art out there,” he says. “We felt there was a opportunity to do this. We have found other competitions are prohibitively expensive as the galleries take a large commission from the artist. We wanted to put together a high quality collection, give artists the platform to show their work and offer artist the chance to win a substantial prize.”

And Joshua says the trend with figurative art that gets publicity is photo-realism. This means other forms can appear neglected, he said.

“This is about traditional art done by young artists,” he said. “We are open-minded but our own art, and what we have been showing, is firmly with in a more traditional figurative school.”

And Joshua points out despite the rise of the Young British Artists, whose popularity was to the detriment of more classical techniques, figurative works were being produced and selling for huge sums.

Joshua Press at work

“Figurative art has never really gone away – think of David Hockney, Lucien Freud and Frank Auerbach, their work was considered the most valuable works out there. But the Young British Artists movement was at the forefront for many years in the public’s perception,” he adds.

Studios like the Hampstead work space foster the time-consuming techniques required.

“We have found smaller studios and artists who have kept the figurative tradition going,” says Mari. “I know a lot of young people who are passionate about painting that is not in vogue for some time, but we have seen some of the best artists showing incredible work. It has always been there and always will be there.”

She adds that many young artists struggle to get their work displayed – no matter how good it is. “It can be a bit like a closed shop – if you are not well known the door is closed, but you cannot get known if you do not exhibit.”

The judging panel bring expertise from different disciplines including drawing, painting, sculpture and pottery.

Joshua Press’s ‘Marie’

Joshua says the high level of quality makes their work surprisingly easy. “I look for authenticity – it is very tangible in a piece of art,” he says.

“You see a certain something that captures the eye. Last year, some pieces stood out. Of course you look for good drawing, nice colour, nice composition. There was a bit of a debate as to who would win first prize, but we all had similar opinions on the quality of the art. We were pleasantly surprised at the high level of entries. We had some really phenomenal artists who picked themselves.”

And running the competition brings a sense of daily excitement for the judges. “It is wonderfully interesting – every morning I check my emails for entries, not knowing what will arrive,” says Mari.

“Artists from around the world have entered and once we have decided who we are going to show, and they start shipping the works in, it gets really, really exciting.”

Entries are open until May 1, and will be displayed at The Fitzrovia Gallery from July 4-10.

Related Articles