Fairs and exhibitions catering to amateur buyers show that home is where the art is

Timothy Barber
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IT’S one of the more basic facts of interior design: unless you live in some whitewashed, ultra-minimalist zen house – and that’s so very five years ago, dear – a room benefits from some kind of art on its walls.

As leading interior designer and art collector Nina Campbell says: “You reach that moment when the furniture is in place and the room is ready, then you hang a picture and suddenly it becomes a home.”

However, if you’ve got a new place with walls to fill, where to begin? Private galleries can seem snooty, intimidating places to the uninitiated, and the sheer variety of art forms and outlets out there is overwhelming.

Then there’s the fact that choosing a work of art is in itself revealing of personal taste and character. It’s enough to send one scarpering back to the world of posters and reproduction prints.
But taking the plunge can be rewarding for even the least initiated, says Nicky Wheeler, director of this weekend’s Affordable Art Fair (AAF), which can be a good starting point for people making their first serious acquisitions. Over 100 galleries will be putting thousands of works of art on display in Battersea Park, all of them priced between £50 and £3,000.


“Galleries can seem intimidating, but at a fair you can walk up and down the aisles and wait for something to catch your eye,” says Wheeler. “The dealers are very approachable, and if you’re drawn to a few of their works you may be able to start building a relationship with a particular gallery.”

Another option comes early next month with the annual ING-sponsored Discerning Eye exhibition at the Mall Galleries, which puts hundreds of small works on display by contemporary artists on an invited and open-submission basis. (I’ll declare an interest here – along with some rather more exalted art world figures, including Nina Campbell, I’m a selector for this year’s show).

Both AAF and the ING Discerning Eye show are directed at showcasing contemporary art, and display the variety and imagination of artists far removed from the kind of dizzying world of the headline-grabbing international art market. There are, of course, plenty of dealers serving more traditional tastes too, and the website of the Society of London Art Dealers (www.slad.org.uk) is a good starting point for finding galleries catering to all tastes.

“A dealer is like a wine waiter,” says Patrick Kennaugh who runs Chelsea’s Hollywood Road Gallery. “We’ll find you something suitable at a sensible price, and because we want to build a long relationship, the last thing you want to do is sell something not right for the client.”

When it comes to choosing a work, Campbell says it’s a mistake to buy purely to complement the aesthetics of a particular space. “You shouldn’t be trying to simply match the sofa or the curtains, or thinking too consciously about making an investment, since it may go out of fashion anyway – buy what pleases your eye. It’s a very personal thing, and it should be the beginning of a journey.”


Nevertheless, making sure a piece works in the space where it’s hung can be an art in itself. Kennaugh says that if you’re buying a large work – over 30 by 40 inches – you should ask the gallery if you can borrow it for an evening or a weekend.

“It’s important to be able to try it out, because you may have a space in mind and realise it doesn’t work at all, or that there’s a better place for it.”

Campbell warns against hanging works too high – classically it should hang at eye level, though lower is better than higher. If grouping together smaller works, she recommends arranging them on the floor first to see how they can fit together. “Do it in an architectural way and measure them out – then be bold, get out the hooks and a hammer and go for it. Ultimately, you must trust your eye.”

The AAF takes place twice a year in Battersea Park, receiving around 25,000 visitors over its four days. 120 British and international galleries have stands displaying work of a maximum value of £3,000 in art forms ranging from sculpture and painting to photography and installation. The fair is open from 11am-6pm until Sunday, with today’s tickets priced at £12 and weekend tickets £15. Affordable Art Fair, Battersea Evolution, Battersea Park, SW11 4NJ www.affordableartfair.co.uk

Sponsored by the bank ING and arranged by art charity Discerning Eye, the exhibition at the Mall Galleries in November brings together hundreds of small works of art by artists from around the UK and abroad, from both invited artists and those chosen in an open submission process by six selectors, each of whose selections are displayed separately. ING Discerning Eye runs from 11-21 November at the Mall Galleries, The Mall, SW1Y 5BD. Entrance is free. www.discerningeye.org