Words Kirk Truman
Photography Max Clarke
“…we wanted it to be a members club, we wanted it to be a space for likeminded creatives to enjoy.”
The images that pass through your mind of Soho during the 1970s and 1980s may first begin with erotic clubs, prostitution and shadowy streets. But they all glowed under a neon light. From Madame JoJo’s to the Raymond Revuebar, Walker’s Court’s catwalk of adult shops to The Blitz Club, not to mention a trail of brothels, neon lighting has bathed Soho in its notorious aura. And there is one establishment that has made it their business to celebrate the lights that, over the years, have given Soho its distinct character.
Fostering itself as a hub for London’s creative community, Lights of Soho is a leading light art gallery and with a members lounge: think creative hangout meets Soho House. Attended by an elusive array of artists, designers and fashionistas, the membership at Lights of Soho is restricted to 2,000 members, and is cheaper than that of the Groucho Club or the Soho House Group. The upstairs of Lights of Soho operates as a gallery for pop-up exhibitions and offers a space for creatives to work during the day. From 6pm onwards, the entire venue is strictly members only. To be considered for membership, applicants must fill out an online form explaining their contributions to London’s creative scene. This is then subject to approval by the club’s founders – Dudley Nevill-Spencer, curator Hamish Jenkinson (former artistic director of the Old Vic Tunnels), and managing director Jonny Grant, all from London. “We wanted a space that welcomed creatives, an antidote to the currently held wisdom that a person is only valuable if they are rich or famous” says Dudley, “We don’t value people by the size of their bank account but by their cultural contribution or creativity – and some of the best creatives I know are penniless! The funny thing is that this attitude seems to have attracted a lot of big name talent and some high-network individuals to the club – I think they value its authenticity.”
In May last year, the gallery became a permanent fixture on Brewer Street, having begun the previous year as a pop-up with an exhibition honouring the late God’s Own Junkyard art pioneer, Chris Bracey. The founders of the gallery were proud and excited to position Lights of Soho within one of the most exciting areas of the city, citing Soho as emblematic of London. And Brewer street couldn’t be more emblematic of Soho, with the last remaining independent Italian delicatessen (Lina Stores) as well as countless famed eateries thriving next to neighbouring ‘massage parlours’ lit by the flickering neons of adult entertainment shops. Originally founded as a pop-up gallery, Lights of Soho in now a permanent fixture at door no. 35 and celebrates the spirit of the neighbourhood and its neon past.
To celebrate becoming a permanent fixture on Brewer Street, their launch exhibition last year, entitled ‘City Lights’, for the first time sat Bracey’s work alongside artists like Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk, Christian Furr and Rob and Nick Carter. The exhibition was not only to mark their opening, but also their vision: to bring together lesser-known and well-established artists in the heart of Soho.
The most recent exhibition at Lights of Soho, in November 2015, saw the gallery revisit their roots, with God’s Own Junkyard’s ‘My Generation’. When Chris Bracey’s remarkable neon artworks first made an appearance, they redefined Soho, transforming it into a nocturnal playground. Chris was an ambitious young designer who went on to change the landscape of London’s Soho, making money from advertising sex. When he joined the family business, his father, Dick Bracey, had already laid the groundwork having produced a number of Soho’s iconic neon signs, such as the original Raymond Revuebar sign (which was re-made by Chris in 2013), and the neon clock outside Bar Italia. Chris, with a plan mapped out in his head, went from place to place in the neighbourhood, selling the Technicolor typography that promised titillation to those who sought it. At the height of his career, Chris had a monopoly producing signs for almost every sex establishment in Soho. For Chris, this wasn’t a seedy endeavour – it was an artistic one. His later works made their way onto the silver screen, featuring in Bladerunner (1982), Eyes Wide Shut (1999) and Batman (1989). The exhibition returned work from Bracey’s 40-year career to the neighbourhood that launched his talents, with a display of pieces borrowed from his Walthamstow-based gallery of signs, God’s Own Junkyard. The recent show at the gallery closed late January.
Despite their infancy, Lights of Soho has flourished in a short period of time. From songwriter Sam Smith’s GQ shoot at the venue, to God’s Own Junkyard and their latest exhibition, ‘Love Hz’ – an explosion of neon hearts, tunnels of love and vintage posters given the ‘neon’ treatment. The founders have expressed an interested in expanding overseas with further venues in either New York or Shanghai, with talks of a restaurant and a neon workshop in the not-too-distant future. ‘Love Hz’ opens to the public as of January 28th.