How art gallery launched in a derelict Hoxton survived gentrification

The studio as it looked in the early '90s.

The studio as it looked in the early '90s. - Credit: Archant

For a generation of people surrounded by dereliction, isolation and squalor, there were places of artistic salvation – and it brought together the vibrant and eclectic Hoxton community.

Studio artists Gordon Beswick and Richard Sharples prepare for the 25th birthday celebrations.

Studio artists Gordon Beswick and Richard Sharples prepare for the 25th birthday celebrations. - Credit: Archant

Now, 25 years later, having survived the wave of gentrification, one of those havens is celebrating its 25th anniversary.

To mark the occasion. artist and designer Michael Czerwinski spoke to the Gazette about his time in Hoxton and Westland Place Studios.

In the 1990s, Hoxton and Shoreditch became an artistic hub for a creative community.

Artists such as Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst were part of the creative buzz, which culminated in late art dealer Joshua Compston’s A Fete Worse Than Death.

Held in 1993, it transformed Hoxton Square into a madcap take on the traditional village fete and saw Hirst doing spiral paintings dressed as a clown and Emin selling kisses for £1.

But besides that hedonism, the lifestyle of an artist was one of loneliness and desolation.

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Born and raised in Hackney, Michael recalls his life in Hoxton and the studios in the early 1990s.

“Do you want the brutal truth?,” he asks.

“The truth is that it felt bleak and it felt as isolated as anywhere else in London did at that time.

“We were filling in the gaps of dereliction and squalor and emptiness with our own presence, and the ’90s were emerging as this period where young creators were really challenging why the city was so bleak.

“We didn’t all come here because it was romantic and it was all dishevelled and shabby chic, we came here because it was bloody cheap.”

Despite the bleakness, Michael describes Hoxton as a place that was pioneering.

Marking this artistic era, Westland Place Studios opened its doors by Old Street roundabout in 1993. Michael came to the studios to pursue his artistic endeavours two years later.

“I came here almost by accident; I was doing a post-graduate course with a woman who I met on that course who knew someone who had space within the building.

“In 1994 we were on the waiting list, then we got a phone call a year later telling us the space was available.”

In the early years, Michael confesses that the studios were “damp and cold”.

But he added: “It was more about having a freedom that comes with access to having good quality space.

“Artists need a room with good light with enough space to be messy, with enough space to make mistakes in order to create successes. And that’s what the building actually offered at that time.

“We had space that no one really cared about apart from us, so we could appropriate that space and make it our own.”

Combatting the isolation of London life, artists within the studios began to use the space to create commonality among each other.

Michael says: “We started having open studios, and we started having late night opening and we started having crazy cabaret nights – that’s when it started feeling like a community.”

Michael recalled his cabaret nights at the studios, where there would be a room full of poets, writers, painters and musicians all sharing each others ideas.

He continued: “They were showing paintings on the wall, you had dancers from the Ballet Rambert performing an avant-garde piece behind internal windows, and then someone up from the poetry library would get up and recite their new work that they wanted to premiere to a like-minded audience.”

He added: “That’s the sort of thing that we were doing.

“And that’s the sort of thing we will be doing in a couple of weeks.”

The studio, housed in the old tobacco pipe warehouse, has survived a turbulent era of gentrification and developing within the area, and is one of the few remaining artistic hubs unaffected. In November, the studio will host a birthday bash marking the achievement.

Reflecting over the 25 years, Michael said: “We have survived a culture that demonises or suppresses anything that is about commercial or financial gain.

“We are in a building that was undesirable 25 years ago but now it’s highly desirable.”

The anniversary weekend will take place on November 1 to 4.

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