At its height, and called an important ‘art hub’ in many a review, a Bethnal Green side street was a beacon for young and hungry galleries with a party lifestyle to match. To the cognoscenti of the arcane social club that is the London art world, Vyner Street is now a failed project, killed off, some would say, by the gentrification that the Olympics supposedly imposed on the East End. Today you almost expect to see tumbleweed bowling down the centre of the street, on past the ghosts of the galleries that once made Vyner Street an art destination: Fred London ; Nettie Horn ; Kate MacGarry ; Modern Art ; Ibid Projects ; David Risley... the list goes on. The shabby-chic local pub, The Victory, must certainly have noticed the difference. Only the magnificent edifice that is the Wilkinson Gallery acts as a reminder of the glory days – but Anthony Wilkinson owns the building and operates on the international fair circuit rather than depending on footfall and impulse sales.
But one building is buzzing with life and it is the one just purchased by three artists to use as operational studios. There, located on the light, open plan first floor is painter Keith Coventry – and, typically, he is going against the flow once again. When Vyner Street throbbed to the beat of raw ambition and thrusting young arrivistes , Coventry was resident in Albany, the exclusive block of 18th-century bachelor pads, just off Piccadilly, that at various times sheltered Lord Byron, Gladstone , Dame Edith Evans, Lord Snowdon and Terence Stamp, among other high society luminaries. Coventry’s own response to this taste of privileged domesticity was to create a series of paintings, Echoes of Albany (loosely based on Walter Sickert), that depicted prostitution and other fun activities enacted within the various sets (flats) of this conservative enclave. And how did an itinerant artist, who had made his name painting abstract interpretations of London council estates, end up in Frederick, Duke of York’s old apartments?
‘It was through James Birch 1 really, he told me about it. George Gale’s son, John Gale , lived there – who I had already met. So I moved in. Terence Stamp was famously resident and later there were a lot of art world people – dealers, auctioneers. Roger Scruton 2 lived in Albany as did Alan Clark (like his father, Sir Kenneth Clark before him). I think I was the first artist to live there in recent times.’
Keith Coventry was born in Burnley, Lancashire, in 1958. His early memories include attendance at a Roman Catholic church every Sunday morning at 7am, to read psalms out loud to the congregation. Ironically, Coventry’s grandmother was the sole Catholic in the family – he did not live with his immediate parents – and she ruled the home with a religious zeal that amounted to censorship. ‘When I have been out drinking, on the way home I still think maybe I should go and do some work now – is that Catholic guilt? I was forced into being a reader in church services – psalms where people give a response – and it sometimes feels like it when I give a talk today.’ Some 40 years later, Coventry would win the £25,000 John Moores Painting Prize (2010) for a work called Spectrum Jesus.
‘I spent years applying to the John Moores open competition. Putting paintings on roof racks and driving them down to collection points in places like Peckham – in those days thousands of people made the effort to submit works. I actually won with a painting that had 40 parts to it – so it was really only one fortieth of a work that actually won. Norman [Rosenthal] was very supportive.’
In fact, the former RA Exhibitions Secretary and Moores’ judge was surprisingly enthusiastic, being reported as saying: ‘[Spectrum Jesus] explores both the moral and religious aspects of iconography. Full of ambiguity and contradictions...’ The painting was subsequently acquired by the Art Fund .
Coventry’s career path is typical of his generation. Born in the North, he was determined to get as far away as possible and, having failed at first to get a place at Chelsea, he attended Brighton Polytechnic (1978-81). ‘I applied to Chelsea because someone at Burnley had described how great it was. Brighton seemed even further away and was my second choice. It was a great place, I went exploring the South Downs at the weekend. It was very big on printmaking at that time with a large department run by Harvey Daniels 3 . I then did my MA in painting at Chelsea School of Art (1981-82) – down in Bagleys Lane, with its burned out council estates and gypsy caravans parked in the forecourts. I lived in Wandsworth Old Town and walked across Wandsworth Bridge each day.’ It was de rigueur at that time for former postgraduates to enter the career vacuum, a sort of trial by poverty, to sort out the serious players from the butterfly dreamers. Coventry’s phlegmatic, northern attitude might well have helped him survive the transition from art school to real world and he recollects he had no problem juggling mundane pay jobs with making art.
‘When I was at school, I was told by the art teacher that I was not the best but that I did have more dedication than the rest of them. I overloaded this guy with work I had produced myself in my own time. I went into art to basically avoid the responsibility of a real job, so I would have carried on however long it took. That reality check was standard in those days. I was a gardener and a painter and decorator for [the infamous property gangster] Nicholas van Hoogstraten. It was through his architect – I never met him – but I remember he didn’t pay. I then lived in a squat in the Oval alongside the cricket ground, which was my studio and which we turned into a gallery. In 1998, everything changed. People went straight into galleries from art school and started selling. But, before that, you had to put in your apprenticeship years. I was quite lucky. I had a studio space at the Oval early on and a bit of painting and decorating to pay the bills. It kept you grounded. I remember Stephen Cox coming round to see me – he was my tutor at Brighton – and saying how he was free every day to paint. Even then I thought that was very boring – a total indulgence.
‘I knew Mark Wallinger – who was mad about cricket – and he brought Michael Landy round because we could get up on to the parapet and watch the Test match. It was Michael who got me a show at Karsten [Schubert]. I think I opened his new gallery in Foley Street. I did a couple of shows. The back bit opened out on to Riding House Street and that became Riding House Editions run by Thomas Dane. It might well have been his building. A lot of people left that gallery – Michael Landy, Gary Hume, me! I just felt I was in the doldrums. I had something running at the same time with Maureen Paley. She had lost Dering Street and gone back to Beck Road and Karsten thought my painting would work there.’
Post-war art history has been determined to mirror the early 20th-century culture of ‘-isms’. It can seem obsessed with identifying critical milestones and movements: Cybernetic Serendipity (ICA, 1968), the Freeze exhibition (1988), Charles Saatchi at Boundary Road and his Young British Artists V (1995) – and already the mythology of Coventry’s scruffy betting shop squat, which for 10 years operated as a cutting edge gallery called City Racing. A cooperative with four other artists – Matt Hale, Paul Noble, John Burgess, and Peter Owen – City Racing became influential before its demise in 1998 and, towards the end, gained respect (and funding) from the establishment. ‘We just kept bashing out the shows. Initially we had a £100 budget where we had all put in £20. Out of this we did a card at Prontoprint, postage – and a few bottles of wine. The five of us were just trying to show our work. We gave exhibitions to Mat Collishaw, Sarah Lucas, Gillian Wearing, Fiona Banner and so on. The visitors book showed people like Julia Peyton-Jones attending. I remember I gave up my bedroom to make more exhibition space for the Gavin Brown exhibition. It lasted 10 years and we did 50 exhibitions – Carl Freedman said the difference between City Racing and the rest was that we kept pushing out the exhibitions. There is a book out now about the whole thing – I haven’t got a copy.’
There was one undisputed 20th-century milestone however, the year before City Racing closed. It was Charles Saatchi’s 1997 Sensation show at the Royal Academy. Even at the time, this showcase for the enfants terribles of English art – the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs) – was seen as something important. Keith Coventry was a participant in this reputation-making exhibition. Although he recalls not being featured centre stage: ‘I was already 10 years older than the YBA people. Mine was the last painting on show as you came out through the bookshop. It was Sir Norman Reid Explaining Modern Art to the Queen and I often wonder if Saatchi identified with this image – himself explaining art to the great British public. I had been included in Saatchi’s Young British Artists V at his gallery on Boundary Road. He had kept a few favourite people on but the rest of us were hived off to the Arts Council or auctioned’.
State: You appear to feel most comfortable making works in series, with clearly defined parameters. Is this a natural methodology?
Keith Coventry: Well, at one time I did not like repeating something I had already done. But I came to see you could do something similar – but that had a slight development in it. So then I started working in series. It seemed doing an idea once and then throwing it away… really, no one has that many ideas do they? I wanted to emphasise an idea in a series.
tate: Your most celebrated series has to be the Estate Paintings, which are really quite sparse and beautiful. I saw Matt Collings wrote: ‘[These] estates spawned new problems, vandalism, violence, social isolation, drug dealing and addiction, prostitution and racism, recurring themes in Coventry’s work.’ You had your finger on something there that captured the imagination of anyone involved with the art of painting. How did they come about?
Keith Coventry: I had a lurcher dog at the time and would go walking for a couple of hours a day. I would cut through council estates looking for new routes to go. All of them have this map at the entrance – like an aerial view of the blocks – and this constant looking at these signs added some significance to them. I thought ‘Suprematist paintings’ – just drop off all the text and they talk about quite a lot in a concise way. The prices for these have been pretty stable actually. With my next body of work it was quite difficult to come up with something as neat as these paintings.
tate: You seem to have had a very lively relationship with quite a few galleries. Is the current collaboration with Pace a sign you are settling down for the long haul?
Keith Coventry: Well, galleries close down. Look at Haunch of Venison. When they were in Burlington Gardens – Haunch had a bookshop where the café is now – their main showing rooms were upstairs. In 2009, I had five rooms and showed 132 paintings! They gave me the space and I just put something in each room. I made those Jesus paintings in about five weeks.
State: The Pace Gallery is now at Burlington Gardens and they have lately closed their Lexington Street project space, which might have suited you better.
Keith Coventry: With Pace – it’s my second show – I think we have what they call a ‘working relationship’. I have had a peripatetic relationship with galleries in the past and it’s good to be fixed. I was attracted to Pace because I knew it was a place where I would not be able to relax. A lot more was going to be demanded of me because standards are much higher on this level. They deal with major estates. Everything depends on results, of course, and my prices are not that high. They come to your studio and see what you are doing and then say: ‘OK, give us 10 really good ones of those!’ It is more like a project, where you take something and develop it. I don’t feel I’m making a commodity – but you certainly go to the edge in terms of anxiety and stress. I will be showing a very large black bronze sculpture and then the McDonald’s logo – curved sections – paintings in white gesso and beeswax. I’m quite disciplined nowadays. I try to work every single day and make sure I do something. I put in fairly long hours – many seven-day weeks and 51-week years. I used to go to those famous art parties, although no one seemed to take a photo of me. I can’t be bothered anymore – and what am I missing? Nothing. I think the Groucho is owned by Krispy Kreme donuts now. If you had a London Library card you could use Black’s up until 6pm in the days of Giuseppe [Mascoli]. They tell me Quo Vadis is the club to use now – although the art collection appears to have gone...