Paul Stolper: Fine Art And Blake's Forgotten Clowns

The Notebook | 29th September 2019

Gallerist Paul Stolper on his latest exhibition of late period works by Sir Peter Blake ahead of Fitzrovia Frieze at Mortimer House, in association with TJ Boulting and FAD Magazine

The Paul Stolper Gallery has been exhibiting contemporary art and producing much sought-after limited-edition fine art prints since the mid-noughties, and the likes of Damien Hirst, Brian Eno, and Jeremy Deller are among those who have graced its walls. Currently exhibiting brand new works by the legendary pop artist Sir Peter Blake, the gallery is certainly continuing the prestigious lineage it is known for during London's Frieze Week. Eponymously named after its founder Paul Stolper, the gallery is nestled on the museum mile in the shadow of The British Museum in Bloombsbury, where many infamous Fitzrovians, such as George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf would mingle in bars with the infamous bohemian milieu of the Bloomsbury Set. It seemed fitting then to invite Paul Stolper Gallery to pair with TJ Boulting Gallery for the Mortimer House and FAD Magazine Fitzrovia Frieze on October 3rd–which celebrates the continuing contribution to culture of our unique panoply of local art galleries. Here, the founder of Paul Stolper Gallery gives us an insight into the trials and tribulations involved in opening a gallery in London, and tells us why Sir Peter Blake has felt inclined to re-inject the iconic visage of the clown into contemporary art discourse in his current show Reintroducing The Clown Into Art.

Tell us about the genesis of The Paul Stolper Gallery…
When I was looking for my first gallery space, I was ready to sign a lease in Litchfield Street–a first floor space that had been the home of the original Zwemmer Gallery. The gallery was established by Dutch-born Anton Zwemmer (1892–1979), as an annexe to the well-known art bookshop and publishers of Charing Cross Road. It had such an amazing history and it would have been great to fill the space once again with art. One of the gallery's most interesting exhibitions Objective Abstractions was staged in 1934 and included work by Graham Bell, Rodrigo Moynihan, Ivor Hitchens, Victor Pasmore and Ceri Richards. In 1935, the gallery was the venue for the first all abstract exhibition to be held in Britain and included works by John Piper and Winifred Nicholson. The gallery also showed works by Picasso, de Chirico, Miró and the first British solo exhibition of Salvador Dali. However, an asset stripper had bought the entire building, and on the day I was to sign, he sold off the gallery and basement, so I had to really quickly find a space–I had a an entire year of scheduled exhibitions lined up, but nowhere to put them on.

How did you overcome such a high-anxiety situation?
At the time, we were so busy with fairs and exhibitions that I had property scouts going round London on motorbikes looking for spaces. I had briefed them on the type of gallery I wanted, and yet whenever they came back with a viewing, it was always either Bond, Albemarle, Dover or Cork Street. Fine, if you’re on the ground floor, but not if the offer is a fifth-floor space with little access for large works. I knew exactly what I wanted and drove to Bloomsbury. The first space I looked at was my current space  at 31 Museum Street, which was, at that time an old print shop–a Dickensian entrance, with two floors to show contemporary art in. The gallery is located in front of the British Museum, which everyone in the world knows, and which also houses one of the greatest collections of prints and drawings in the world. Charles Dickens drank here when he was dedicating his energy to amateur dramatics; John Keats, George Orwell and the Bloomsbury Set were also patrons. It’s such a great history.

It’s a history that seems to have healthily continued–you currently have the living legend Sir Peter Blake exhibiting. Can you tell us about the work?
It is an exhibition of paintings and a new set of three etchings depicting clowns. The group of paintings, made between 2018–2019, fulfil a number of functions for Blake, and belong to what he calls his ‘Late Period’–a title he employs for all of his on-going projects, instigated when he turned 75. Certainly not a retirement from work, Blake has never been more busy with exhibitions, both here and abroad, but more a classification of this current period. It follows on from his conscious retirement at the age of 65 from the business of art when he finished his three-year residency at The National Gallery, London. The series of clown paintings all follow the same composition–each one made up of a grid of nine squares. The central square shows an inkjet of a clown, a classic type, with large ruff, round red nose, heavily made-up and with a tiny hat perched on the side of the head, sourced from a Memphis printers, that makes posters for concerts and circuses. The bottom right-hand square is reserved for Blake’s description and title, whereby the title ‘Late Period Clown’ is stencilled onto the canvas, above the hand-written signature and text ‘Reintroducing The Clown Into Art’.

Why do you think he is driven to reintroduce the clown into art?
The clown as motif is a favourite of Blake’s, and one he feels has been neglected in art in recent times. As with other circus performers, including tattooed men and women, acrobats and harlequins, Blake has returned to them many times over the years in both print and painting. But it is the conjunction of the expressive and figurative clown face contrasted with the cool abstraction of the coloured squares that makes the paintings so arresting. They are reminiscent of his earlier black-and-white series of assemblages, where Blake collected, sometimes on a single ‘walk’ or over a restricted period of time, a myriad of objects, in wood, plastic, metal, all in a single colour, or as close as possible, and glued them to a painted wood surface. Set apart from this group in the exhibition is a single striped painting, made up of six separate thin strips of canvas, each painted a different colour. The individual canvases were bought from the wife of the photographer Terence Donovan, who had bought a large number of canvases but had never used them. Blake kept them in his studio for years, not knowing what to do with them, until the striped idea suggested itself, almost a year before he began work on the colour-field clown paintings.

Interview by John-Paul Pryor

Reintroducing The Clown Into Art is at Paul Stolper Gallery, October 4-Nov 9
Mortimer House & FAD MAgazine's Fitzovia Frieze, in association with Paul Stolper Gallery & TJ Boulting is on October 3