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A Home of  World Culture

A Home of World Culture

Words Kirk Truman

Photography Etienne Gilfillan

“I’ve always had this love of human creativity, what people can create, and what nature can create…”

A few years ago, one Fitzrovian opened my eyes a little wider to the neighbourhood… and the world beyond. She encouraged me to look, to listen and to really see this village in the city through her eyes. Her name is Rebecca Hossack. She’s beautiful, seemingly ageless, and strikingly tall. She’s intellectual and influential, a respected businesswoman, an established art dealer, and a member of the local council. And considering how remarkably down-to-earth she is, it’s easy to forget the success of her eponymously named galleries here in Fitzrovia and across the pond in New York City. She’s remarkably open when discussing her business, and her abiding love of Fitzrovia, but Rebecca values her privacy too, especially when it comes to her home environment and her own personal art collection, so I was delighted when she invited me into this very special place.

Born in 1955, Rebecca has a Scottish family heritage and was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia. She began studying for the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in the early 1980s when she first came to England, but soon after opted for a career in art. After borrowing £20,000 to open her first gallery on Windmill Street in 1988, Rebecca has gone on to establish two successful Fitzrovia-based galleries, on Charlotte Street and Conway Street, with another in the heart of Lower Manhattan, New York. Today, her presence and her mission are as uncompromising as ever: she wants to create a sanctuary where people can come to find themselves among the artworks, greenery and peace of her galleries.

The same approach to creating a unique space extends to her domestic environment. Just round the corner from Conway Street, in a classic, flat-fronted Fitzrovia terrace, she and her husband Matthew Sturgis have created a beautiful home that’s as full of the unexpected as her galleries, and filled with Rebecca’s extensive personal collection of non-Western art and artefacts. It begs the question: is her home is an extension of her galleries, or her galleries an extension of her home?

As we stand in the kitchen, Rebecca talks to me while making a pot of tea. “This is a house of world culture. Everything in the house isn’t just a thing – it has meaning and a personal touch. Everything is made or created by somebody I or my husband knows. In the kitchen alone, all of the cups and saucers are made by the octogenarian potter, Anne Stokes, from Hampstead,” she says, handing to me a plate inspired by the Aboriginal artist Jimmy Pike. We step down into the basement of the house, which Rebecca’s refers to as her ‘earth room’. “Everything in here is homemade. Because it’s downstairs, I wanted this to be the earth room. Everything down here is made from the earth. The floor is leather and the curtains are woven leather,” she tells me. From a rare wooden medieval chest, to a woven high-back Orkney Scottish chair and a Haitian voodoo flag, the contents of the earth room rival the displays at the British Museum or the V&A, both of whom have taken objects and artefacts from her home on loan through the years. Rebecca walks me to the end of the room, where she introduces me to a series of paintings, and two aboriginal funeral poles. “These are our hollow log coffins. When Matthew and I die, I’ll go in this one, and he’ll go in that one; your bones gone in there. Traditionally, the aboriginals would hang your dead body on a tree until you’d fully decomposed, then bleach your bones, and stuff them in the log. I’m hoping my log can be planted in Fitzroy Square. I’m not sure how the residents will take to it though!” she laughs.

Her relationship with art and collecting has been a long one, growing throughout her life. It began when she was a child in Melbourne. “Ever since I was tiny, I have been collecting. I’ve always had this love of human creativity, what people can create, and what nature can create. I’ve always had an obsession with flowers,” she says. “I’ve had many, many collections during my life; my first one was of glass animals. I have always loved collecting – what humans have made is a source of infinite delight to me. I am not delighted by many modern things: the public realm constantly disappoints me.”

Rebecca’s lifelong love affair with aboriginal and non-Western art   is an unmistakable product of her Australian origins. “I am from a family of three generations of Scottish weavers. My father was a doctor, and all of my family were tradespeople and factory workers. I was the first member of the family to break from the norm. It’s funny how suddenly that happens, and why,“ she observes. “Through the galleries I represent 40 artists, all non-Western. I kind of made it my mission to work with only non-Western artists. Today, I think we have more pictures and paintings than any other house in Fitzrovia – somewhere in the region of 430 – and an extensive book collection made up of my and my husband’s personal collections. I don’t know what to do now, because I really have run out of room on the walls. Each one is personal and like a jewel, with so much knowledge and meaning. That’s maybe my biggest existential problem in life now!” she laughs. “It’s really hard to have a minimalist house filled with this many books and pictures. Everything on the walls is rare enough to be in the British Museum – some of it has been at one time or another!” Rebecca and I walk through the entrance hall of her house. I am examining a series of solid bronze cactuses when she draws my attention to a painting that covers most of the wall space. “The picture you are looking at here is by the Spinifex people. I went to the most remote place on the earth on Christmas Day to meet them some years ago in the Great Victoria Desert. Little was known about these people – so much so that the British used the site for nuclear weapons testing,” she says. “The painting tells the story of a nuclear weapons test, in which they evacuated their homeland.”

The Rebecca Hossack Art Gallery has been an established presence in Fitzrovia for almost 30 years now, and is renowned for showing exciting, often eye-opening work by international artists. Walking around Rebecca’s galleries, as in her home, you are greeted at every turn by figurative drawings, paintings and sculptures that go against existing trends in the art world and are quite unlike anything you’ll see elsewhere. The galleries frequently show work on paper by Aboriginal artists from Australia, and are undoubtedly among London’s most enviably independent and original gallery spaces. Rebecca Hossack is a Fitzrovia institution. Despite her protestations about lack of space, I suspect her extensive personal art collection will continue to grow, just as her galleries will continue to showcase some of the most exciting and unexpected art to be seen in Fitzrovia. Home and gallery are, in the end, of a piece, and 100 per cent Rebecca.

All Flutes Plus

All Flutes Plus

Words Darren Hawes

Photography Kirk Truman

“I suppose it’s what you call a ‘destination store’… so being in a really desirable part of London is really important for us. Fitzrovia fits that well indeed.”

Nietzsche once said that “in a world whose essence is Will to Power, [we] may be reminded that Schopenhauer, although a pessimist, ACTUALLY–played the flute.” It wouldn’t be a stretch to see this wonderfully, usually so soothing an instrument as a symbol of peace, something that can turn even the most ardent pessimists into hopeful cherubs. I met with Nigel James, director of All Flutes Plus to see how this concept can be made into a successful specialist business that starts in Fitzrovia and makes it all over the world.

60-61 Warren Street is a rather unassuming premises, but it contains a veritable treasure trove for music. Stepping into All Flutes Plus, I was reminded of a jewellery store with the glimmering shine of instruments kept behind their glass cases – here is a place that self-evidently cares for the artistic quality and integrity of its specialism.

Another thing I noted about the shop, it really gets busy. Nigel took me downstairs into the Warren Room (a practise room that doubles as a place for events) for a chat, saying “I might have to leave from time to time if people come in.” He’s adamant of giving the customer the utmost care and attention.

Nigel’s brother opened the original All Flutes Plus on Dorset Street in 1990 but Nigel started working there soon after. In time, the team “outgrew” (as Nigel puts it) the building in Marylebone and relocated to the two floored building in Fitzrovia. “It’s a lovely area, it’s incredibly accessible, which is what we need.” I’m told of the reasons behind opening the new shop here. “I suppose it’s what you call a ‘destination store’, good transport links to all mainline stations. And there are customers coming to us all over the world, so being in a really desirable part of London is really important for us. Fitzrovia fits that well indeed.” Nigel’s enthusiasm for the area cements the business’ booming state. I ask him if there is a lot of custom from around Fitzrovia. “We have the West-end musicians. One or two of them live locally. Then there are the schools for the educational side of music, we do a lot of business with these.” But it isn’t just the local clientele that Nigel aims for, “for us it’s the location which is great. Being situated on Warren Street is brilliant because it’s actually quite quiet, but close to Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road, which are busy but not quiet. So it’s ideal.” The location, I notice, means that a lot of the foot traffic coming from around the busier streets opens up the business to a world of clientele.

Of course, it isn’t just the wandering eye of a passing traveller that All Flutes Plus rely on, although they’re always happy to help you. As Nigel says, “If it’s a complete beginner we can guide them in terms of what the quality and budget they have to find a suitable instrument.” If you’re a seasoned player, there are also services on offer for you too. Nigel’s view if you want a change in instrument is simple, “Let’s try lots and see!” When it comes to the flute, whatever your skill, level or interest you’ll get quality service here. They also offer a range of services to schools, “We try and promote the instruments. We will organise workshops around different schools: Sometimes with just flutes, sometimes we’ll work with other companies that specialise in other instruments, like Brass.” Nigel tells me, “and we’ll go and organise workshops in schools. Beyond anything, we want to promote instrumental uses. And that’s crucial to education. It’s been proven over and over again that learning an instrument helps brain function: particularly with mathematics.”

The team comprises of music specialists (all of whom are skilled players in their own right) and technicians (for any servicing and refurbishments you may need). “Most of our staff are highly trained musicians. So they know instruments, they know music.” Nigel seems incredibly, and understandably, proud of the quality of his staff. “Importantly, they know what customers need.” On top of this, there are the workshop staff, Eliana Amos and Antonio Fernandez Obelliero who, as Nigel tells me, “if you have a problem they can fix it.”

I ask Nigel about the sorts of issues they see to from time to time. “A common issue is with some of the students at the conservatoires – we’re just up the road from the Royal Academy. They’re so busy practising all the time; they can’t find time to organise in their schedule to plan a few days when they can book the flute in for a proper servicing.” Giving an uncomfortable laugh he goes on to highlight the problem with this, “So, inevitably what happens is that they’ll have an important audition, exam, rehearsal, whatever, and ‘Oh dear!’ Their flute packs up on them.” Nigel tells me that in such situations they do what they can to get the flute in full working order (sometimes in the space of only two hours!) Service is a last resort, however, and Nigel does urge players to keep their instrument in good condition. I asked if they should get regular check, “Yeah, if it’s a player that’s using it a huge amount get it serviced regularly, rather than waiting until it packs up on you.” If you want to avoid the stresses caused by a broken instrument, All Flutes Plus offer many services that will help keep it in good working order.

Finally, Nigel tells me that they keep a close relationship with their suppliers and manufacturers. “We have personal contacts with most of the good quality manufacturers in the world; a lot of them are Japanese and America and we even have a few individual makers and craftsmen in the UK. The quality of Asian products has gotten better and better.” He tells me that Chinese products used to be rather poor but are now becoming good quality. “We check everything as it comes here.” All Flutes Plus offers unrivalled quality and an internationally renowned service.

I can see why Nietzsche was surprised to learn that a pessimist still played the flute, but why should this instrument be just for the few? It really is a beautiful instrument that requires a lot of care and attention. And you can find that right here in Fitzrovia.

French’s Theatre Bookshop

French’s Theatre Bookshop

Words Darren Hawes

Photography Erin Barry

“It’s a strange little shop and always has been… the fact that it exists is kind of wonderful in a world where everything would tell you that this shop has everything going against it.”

I suppose it’s all rather fitting that at the junction of Warren and Fitzroy streets sits a cave of wonders – French’s Theatre Bookshop – not a minute away from Fitzroy square. I went into this establishment to have a look around, as well as chat to its owner/manager what? Peter Langdon

My first impression of the shop comes from before I even enter; black wooden frames catch the eye, drawing my attention towards the mountains of books inside. Of course, this feeling of awe at the sheer size of the shop floor collection does not diminish upon entering; plays stacked by author, theme, teachings and more line the walls (and much of the tables) of this establishment. It isn’t just any old bookshop either, Peter tells me of the things they’re involved in. “We are a publisher, so we publish plays, we also represent the rights to plays, so if anyone wants to perform the play we sell the license to perform it on behalf of the author, then collect the money and supply it to the author. And we also have the shop which has been around for a long time.” In fact, French’s was involved in the recent production of Elephant Man at the West-End, starring Bradley Cooper in the titular role.

As Peter goes on to tell me, “People are a bit unclear as to when the shop actually started, but it was in the early 19th Century. The company started in 1830, so we’ve got our 185th anniversary this year.” The location of the shop has changed throughout the centuries, but I learn that its current incarnation has been in Fitzrovia since the 1980s, and before that Covent Garden. Peter tells me about the effect this change of location has had on the bookshop. “When we were in Covent Garden it was more in the heart of theatre land, but we do have theatres here as well. And we’re not so far from the West-End. So really, if you are in London and interested in theatre we’re very close by.” On top of the location, French’s has expanded outside of the physical world, “We also have a website which offers our entire range online.” Peter lets me know that he thinks this makes them “probably one of the biggest theatre bookshops online now too!”

This specialism Peter talks about can be seen easily in the shop, and the people who work here are always willing to help, “We have people in the shop who just know theatre inside out,” he tells me. “If there was a production in 1962, you want to find out about it, we’ve probably heard of it and can find it for you.” This wealth of knowledge is not confined to those who know what they want either: “our specialism is quite broad… Simon the manager, who’s been with us for thirty…ish years, has in his time come across almost anything. It would be great if we could get people who don’t normally read plays to do it. You wouldn’t think to get a play and just sit down and read… but some plays – not all but some – are just fascinating to see on the page.” French’s is beginning to expand outside of simple bookselling too, “We are starting to do more events in the shop. Book launches and talks in the evening, always on weekday evenings. As well as external events and workshops: we’ve done one of these workshops on how to audition in May with 250 people.” Whether you’re just passing, or really need something in relation to theatre, French’s can and will provide.

As well as current offerings, Peter lets me know that “there’s quite a lot of things we want to start doing, and we definitely want to find more people and bring them into the shop. Make it more of a shop that local people feel they can use and pop in to find a really interesting work.” The atmosphere in the shop allows for discovery. “You can come in some days and see a group of people all sat around a table reading. It’s not always possible to like the book but we want to offer a place where people can think and just try out new things, whatever their reason.”

During the long history of French’s Theatre Bookshop business hasn’t stopped, and Peter proudly tells me about how they’ve kept the place at the centre of not just the theatre industry, but literature on the whole. “It’s what makes us different, I mean it’s a strange little shop and always has been, it’s a highly particular market, but I think the fact it exists is kind of wonderful in a world where everything would tell you that this shop has everything going against it. But our sales are up on last year, and we really want to make sure we’re as useful as possible for people. We don’t want to get stuck in the past and we’re aware of the different needs people have now.” Seemingly a bookshop is no longer just a bookshop, it’s a place where you can meet people, where you can go have events. It’s a place of discovery now. Whereas, for example, the online world is a place for what you want and what you already know.

Finally, along with its long history and many guises, there is something special, almost ethereal about the Samuel French brand. “Quite a lot of people get really excited when they get their first Samuel French publication through. They say that when they were a kid they always had a Samuel French book on their shelf. So it becomes really exciting when we accept a play from one of these people and they become a part of it too.”