LONDON — In the mid-1990s, the East London neighborhoods of Hoxton, Hackney, Shoreditch, and Bethnal Green were to London what Williamsburg is to New York or Kreuzberg to Berlin: the base for ambitious young artists who took advantage of low rents to work on making their mark on the art world. On summer evenings back then exhibition previews were night-long parties that spilled out of pubs and onto the streets.
The setting of the Summer Olympics in East London accelerated a process that had already priced out the youthful art scene from the canal-side warehouses of Vyner Street. Established artists went west, to Fitzrovia and Mayfair. But for young talent you have to look south of the River Thames to the unloved areas of Bermondsey, Peckham, Deptford, and Camberwell.
Much-maligned South London has always been an industrial quarter. Historian Simon Winchester describes 19th-century South London as “a place of warehouses and tenant shacks, and miserable rows of ill-built houses” to which “few respectable Londoners would ever admit to venturing.” Street names revealed the local trades: Tanner Street, Leathermarket, Maiden Lane.
North Londoners would say that little has changed. They’re right in some respects: Many of the grimy Dickensian streets have survived and now play starring roles in costume dramas and Harry Potter films. Venture deeper into the neighborhood and you will find surprising architecture and some exciting contemporary art.
“South London has had activity growing for many years, since the early Young British Artists, and is really blossoming now. She might seem a little rough around the edges, but there are some very beautiful and interesting areas to discover. Many parts of South London are still original and surround award-winning modern buildings such as Herzog and de Meuron’s Laban Dance Centre in Deptford, cradling St. Paul’s Church,” says Julia Alvarez, director of BEARSPACE, a gallery on Deptford High Street dedicated to up-and-coming young artists .
Emily Druiff of Peckham Space, which opened in 2010 opposite Peckham’s landmark Will Alsop-designed library, agrees: “Copeland Industrial Estate in Peckham is edgy in the same way that Vyner Street was 15 years ago.” Bigger fish migrated south too: Last October, an outpost of art dealer Jay Jopling’s White Cube gallery landed in nearby Bermondsey.
Alvarez and Druiff are two of the people behind the South London Art Map (SLAM), which began with 25 local galleries and is now a network of 150 with pay-what-you-want art tours and late closings on the last Friday of every month. The art maps, covering Deptford, Peckham, and Bankside (including Bermondsey), help visitors “see several galleries in a couple of hours, giving them a taste of art in South London,” says Alvarez.
To venture south of the river, first fix your geography. The Thames bisects London with its wiggly course. On its South Bank, opposite the Houses of Parliament, revolves the London Eye. A 20-minute walk east along the river and the straight lines of the monolithic Tate Modern — a fixture on every visitor’s itinerary — brings you to the curves of Sir Christopher Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral across the Millennium Bridge. Bermondsey lies to the southeast. South of Bermondsey is Camberwell, then Peckham. Neither the London Underground nor Mayor Boris Johnson’s bike share scheme penetrate far into this part of the city. You will be using overland trains, buses, taxis, or your own two feet.
If you arrive via Waterloo Station, make your first stop the Old Vic Tunnels below. This warren of disused tunnels, though not part of SLAM, hosts performances and exhibitions. In the shadow of the Shard tower, Bermondsey’s White Cube is one of the largest commercial galleries in the United Kingdom and an essential stop, if only to admire both buildings. Unlike Jopling’s other White Cubes, this one is geared toward the casual visitor. It has a bookshop and an auditorium for films and lectures.
Continuing south to Peckham, drop into the South London Gallery, one of the capital’s most deeply rooted contemporary art galleries, boasting a collection that includes works by Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin, plus a cafe. Peckham Space is the best place to encounter work by local artists and was involved in the Peckham Peace Wall, a public artwork of 4,500 Post-It notes by Garudio Studiage to be unveiled in August. In general, the art scene around Peckham tends to be young and interested in digital media and its galleries often are hidden on back streets, making SLAM essential.
Stroll to the south side of Peckham Rye train station to find Copeland Industrial Park, the unprepossessing epicenter of Peckham’s art scene. Its galleries and studios include the Son Gallery, which is curated by 20-something Guy Robertson and specializes in photography. Hannah Barry Gallery is another potential stop here. Farther east, Alvarez’s BEARSPACE has shown artists such as Jake and Dinos Chapman alongside emerging artists. BEARSPACE will be the focus for the annual Deptford X contemporary art festival, taking place during the Olympic Games (July 27-Aug. 12).
Alvarez’s advice to a first-time visitor to southeast London is to “concentrate on a particular place and give yourself plenty of time; travel on a Saturday and you can be sure lots of galleries will be open.”
Heading south again, we pop out of the south side of Peckham and into the suburban gentility of Dulwich. If you’ve made it this far, there’s one final stop to make. The perfectly proportioned 19th-century Dulwich Picture Gallery, designed by Sir John Soane (whose former house in Holborn is a must-visit museum), houses one of Britain’s finest collections of Old Masters, with works by Rembrandt, Rubens, and van Dyck. It will be a thought-provoking finish to all that you have seen in South London.
Now, hop on a train back to London Bridge and “respectable” London.