A Walk Down Cork Street

A new initiative by Frieze, No.9 Cork Street, continues Cork Street’s rich history of artistic experimentation and public engagement

BY Louisa Buck in Frieze Week Magazine | 12 OCT 21

While the major avant-garde movements flourished in Paris, Berlin and New York during the first half of the twentieth century, much of the London art establishment turned up its nose at anything remotely experimental. Amidst all this conservative provincialism, however, there was one small corner of the city where it was possible to catch a glimpse of the latest artistic developments: Cork Street.

Tucked behind the Royal Academy of Arts, just north of Piccadilly, a handful of pioneering galleries here not only kept the pilot light of radicalism ignited but also frequently allowed it to flare up with dazzling brightness. Over the years, Cork Street has played host to important early shows by the likes of Max Ernst, Paul Klee and Joan Miró, and provided foothold for key names of American abstraction and pop art: not to mention some of the most flamboyant figures of recent art history.

In the 1990s, the London art world set its sights on the East End and many galleries moved out to Hackney and Bethnal Green. Today, however, Cork Street is firmly back on the map with an influx of new galleries setting up shop alongside some of the street established names. ‘We were enticed by the fact that Cork Street is at the heart of the establishment on the one hand but, at the same time, has this historical reputation as the heart of the avant-garde,’ says Jo Stella-Sawicka of Goodman Gallery. Founded in South Africa, in 2019 Goodman established its London base on Cork Street in the Richard Rogers-designed spaces at No. 26. A conspicuous arrival on the block is Frieze, which just ahead of this year’s Frieze Week took over two converted townhouses at No. 9 to make its first gallery space, which will be playing host to a rolling occupancy of international names. ‘We wanted to offer galleries access to a location that had both a history and a community,’ says Frieze London’s Director, Eva Langret. The starting line-up comprises James Cohan from New York, Commonwealth & Council from Los Angeles and Proyectos Ultravioleta from Guatemala.

Today’s new occupants are going to have to pull out all the stops to match the shenanigans that have taken place over the years in this small street.


First to arrive on the street in 1925 was Freddie Mayor, whom the London polymath George Melly described as ‘a rubicund, cigar-smoking bon viveur whose taste in pictures was equalled by his enthusiasm for the racecourse’. The Mayor Gallery quickly gained a reputation as a groundbreaking venue: in addition to Ernst and Klee, Alexander Calder and André Masson were among those to get their first UK showing at the gallery. In 1933, Mayor gave Miró his first British solo and included Francis Bacon in a group show – his first London exposure. The Mayor was also a centre for homegrown talent, most notably as the meeting place for the Unit One group, which included Edward Burra, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Ben Nicholson.

Mayor’s son, James, took over in 1973, ushering in a new transatlantic regime where, working in collaboration with Leo Castelli in New York, the gallery offered an early UK showcase for many leading American artists, including Eva Hesse, Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Robert Ryman, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol. The Mayor Gallery continues to be an important presence on Cork Street, occupying the first floor of No. 21, with James still at the helm.

Where Freddie Mayor led, other galleries followed. In 1936, the Redfern Gallery set up shop at 20 Cork Street, where it remains today, as a major outlet for Modern British art. The same year also saw the opening of the London Gallery at No. 28 which, under the directorship of Édouard ‘ELT’ Mesens, irascible Belgian artist and friend of René Magritte, became the official HQ for surrealism in Britain. Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Man Ray were just a few of the major figures who received early exhibitions there. London Gallery private views were famously excessive and riotous. There was scandalized press coverage of the midnight opening of their ‘Surrealist Objects and Poems’ exhibition in November 1937, with guests including Henry Moore being served sausages and whiskey whilst the artist Julian Trevelyan gave a speech dressed as a blind explorer. Among the throng was Shelia Legge, self-styled ‘surrealist phantom’, who spent the evening hitching up her skirt to bare a leg painted with a grinning mouth and a demon figure, while Herbert Read, the leading art critic of the day, urged the inebriated gathering to appreciate the bizarre array of exhibits, describing them as ‘angels of anarchy and machines for making clouds’.


Another conspicuous, if short-lived, presence on the street was the pioneering art collector Peggy Guggenheim. Between 1938–39, she set up Guggenheim Jeune Gallery in a former pawnshop next door to the London Gallery on the second floor of No. 30. Marcel Duchamp was her artistic advisor and Guggenheim Jeune’s opening show of Jean Cocteau was accompanied by an essay translated by one of Guggenheim’s many paramours, a young, then- unknown writer named Samuel Beckett. The exhibition included two new drawings on linen sheets depicting four naked figures, with their genitals covered by fig leaves. Objecting to the fact that their pubic hair was still visible, British customs detained the works at Croydon airport, deeming them too obscene for public view. After a frantic dash to Croydon, and hurried negotiations by Guggenheim and Duchamp, the offending works were eventually released on the condition that they were shown in a back room.

Guggenheim Jeune made no money but had a considerable impact, providing both Tanguy and Wassily Kandinsky with their first London solos, as well as giving Lucian Freud his first public showing: a drawing, made when the artist was 8 years old, was included in 1938 exhibition of ‘child art’. But the gallery fell foul of British customs once again with an exhibition of sculpture from Paris selected by Duchamp, which included works by Jean Arp, Constantin Brâncusi and Calder. This time, the authorities refused to admit the works into the UK as art, attempting instead to impose prohibitively expensive duties based on the fact that they comprised large pieces of metal, wood and stone. Following a petition rustled up by Moore and Read, the matter was raised in the House of Commons, where it was decreed that the pieces were indeed works of art and, in a blaze of publicity, the exhibition went ahead.


However, none of these episodes can compare to the high jinks accompanying the ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ at New Burlington Galleries, which took place in the summer of 1936 on the corner of Cork Street at No. 5 Burlington Gardens, now occupied by Cecconi’s restaurant. The carnival of events surrounding this exhibition was attended by more than 25,000 people during its four-week run. The crushed opening was officiated by André Breton, surrealism’s high priest, dressed in a green suit that matched his wife’s emerald fingernails, while the poet Dylan Thomas offered guests cups of boiled string, asking whether they wanted it ‘weak or strong’. Not to be upstaged, Salvador Dalí nearly suffocated as he delivered an inaudible lecture titled ‘Authentic Paranoic Phantoms’ whilst bolted inside a diving suit and holding a pair of leashed Irish Wolfhounds. It was during this opening that Legge made her first ‘surrealist phantom’ appearance, with her face covered by a mask of rose petals and brandishing a pork chop. All these activities took before a dazzling array of exhibits in which masterpieces by Ernst, Magritte, Francis Picabia and Pablo Picasso jostled for space.

The outbreak of the second world war in 1939 resulted in the closure of all the galleries on Cork Street. But, in the postwar years, the Mayor and Redfern Galleries re-opened at their original addresses, while significant newcomers also joined the line-up. One of these was Victor Waddington, who moved from Dublin to open his Cork Street space in 1957. The Waddington Galleries would go on to occupy multiple spaces along the street, hosting solo presentations for the Cornish St Ives School of artists as well as being largely responsible for introducing postwar American colour field painting and abstract expressionism to London in the 1970s. Waddington’s son, Leslie, assumed sole leadership after his father’s death in 1981, becoming a revered figure who championed new European and American painting and sculpture by such figures as Georg Baselitz, Michael Craig-Martin, Barry Flanagan and Mimmo Paladino. Leslie Waddington died in 2015, but the gallery still operates at No. 11 Cork Street under the directorship of Stephane Custot, representing some artists who had worked with the Waddingtons – such as Peter Blake and John Wesley – and carrying the name Waddington Custot in honour of their legacy. A dedicated print space, Waddington Graphics, became the specialist Alan Cristea in 1995 (now Cristea Roberts), for many years operating two galleries on the street, while other major names with a Cork Street address at some point include Victoria Miro, with the latter recently returning to Mayfair and opening a companion space to her East End gallery around the corner in St George Street. 


Up until the early 1990s, the Cork Street Summer Party was one of most conspicuous events on the London art calendar and the scenario for much bad behaviour. The young artists’ collective Grey Organisation attempted to disrupt the 1985 bash with one of their acts of ‘art terrorism’, splashing the windows of all the street’s major galleries with grey paint and being arrested and banned from central London as a result. On another occasion in the 1980s, Wilma Johnson and Jennifer and Christine Binnie of performance group the Neo-Naturists – subject of a rousing survey at Studio Voltaire, London in 2016 – used Cork Street’s annual gathering to stage an impromptu naked cabaret across the bonnets of various parked cars, flashing open their fake fur coats to reveal bodies elaborately painted and swathed in sticky tape.

It remains to be seen whether or not any bodies will be bared on Cork Street during Frieze Week, but the new collegiality that has emerged amongst London galleries as one of the few positive outcomes of the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly much in evidence in this renowned artistic stronghold. ‘With all the development work done on Cork Street and its new spaces specifically designed for today’s needs, it’s been possible to revive this community of galleries again,’ says Louise Hayward, senior director of Lisson Gallery, who have augmented their other longstanding north west London spaces on Bell Street and Lisson Street with a temporary gallery at No. 22 Cork Street, which during Frieze Week will be showing seven alabaster sculptures by Marina Abramović. ‘It feels like the right moment to be in the centre of town, surrounded by different generations of galleries,’ Hayward observes ‘all on the most famous art street in London.’ Hear hear.

This article first appeared in Frieze Week, October 2021 under the headline 'A Walk Down Cork Street'. It was incorrectly edited misrepresent the date of Freddie Mayor's arrival on Cork Street. This has been amended online.

Illustrations by Peony Gent

Louisa Buck is a writer based in London, UK.