An old bakery in the centre of Greenwich is providing a colourful alternative to the stark minimalism of the capital’s West End galleries. Simultaneously, Peckham Levels is set to be transformed into a pioneering cultural space. It’s all part of a burgeoning art scene in south east London

Words: Nikki Spencer
Lead image: Ben Oakley Gallery, Greenwich

I’m not a big fan of clinical white walls. That’s for dentists and doctor’s surgeries and I think it can be off-putting,’ explains Ben Oakley, who runs his own gallery in a former baker’s on the edge of Greenwich Market…

‘Paint somewhere white and people are often afraid to step inside. This is much more homely and approachable.’ After removing the bread ovens, Oakley stripped back the plaster to the brick and pulled down the fake ceiling, whilst keeping the original fireplace and a few remnants of the 1940s wallpaper.

‘Leading artists like BP portrait winner John McCarthy have exhibited here because it’s an interesting space, we give them more freedom and don’t just see them as a cash cow,’ Oakley adds.

After numerous shows last year, which included a joint exhibition by Greenwich-based artists Kim Tong and Yvonne Wayling, the gallery has now been turned into a nightclub, complete with flashing lights and a disco ball, for a group show called Fablon. It features the work of Woolwich-born Ray Richardson, who has been described by GQ as the ‘Martin Scorsese of painting’, fine art illustrator David Bray and contemporary artist Guy Denning, along with work by Oakley himself.

‘They are all well established artists, the only chancer is me,’ jokes Oakley, who started creating and selling his own work over 15 years ago after a period as an assistant director at Ridley Scott Associates, amongst others, in the film industry.

‘It’s feast or famine in film so I started doing pop-up shows in disused spaces featuring my work along with other artists and it was so popular I decided to find somewhere permanent.’

The Ben Oakley gallery is part of a burgeoning art scene in south east London, with so many artists, designers and creatives attracted by the affordable studio space at places like Thames Side Studios in Woolwich, and in Deptford, where new studio space is opening at Anthology Deptford Foundry in November

The Ben Oakley gallery, which opened five years ago, is part of a burgeoning art scene in south east London, with so many artists, designers and creatives attracted by the affordable studio space at places like Thames Side Studios (formerly Second Floor Studios) in Woolwich, and in Deptford, where new studio space is opening at Anthology Deptford Foundry in November, adding to that already at A.P.T. and Cockpit Arts – and Peckham Levels could soon join that list.

In Forest Hill, Canvas & Cream, which was opened in 2012 by mother and daughter Joanna and Emily Gore as a restaurant and gallery with artists’ studios, has caught the attention of prolific art collector Charles Saatchi, who bought the entire collection of artist Rafal Zawistowski before his private view and then snapped up a number of works by 24-year-old Goldsmith’s graduate Mona Osman.

‘More and more artists are coming here now instead of east London and also west London, because of the facilities we have,’ says Oakley. ‘What is different about south east London is we don’t take ourselves too seriously. People do what they do here because they love it, not to follow fashion. There’s no pretence and we are a lot more straight down the line.’

Oakley and his fellow artists have clearly had fun producing the Fablon show, which features five artworks by each of them, all inspired by the life of a fictitious character Kevin Threesauds and his clubbing days. ‘Being an artist can feel like the best job, but also the worst as it is often solitary, so it’s great to collaborate,’ says Oakley.

Previous group shows have seen them transform the gallery into a pub, a record shop, a bedsit and a boxing ring, all rather realistically. ‘When it was a bedsit we had people coming in and wanting to rent it, and when it was boxing ring, a guy came in trying to buy boxing gloves!’ recalls Oakley who is doing his bit to nurture the next generation of artists too.

‘We had a 12-year-old called Fret exhibit a while back. He popped in to see a street art exhibition, asked if he could show me his work and came back accompanied by his mum and dad. It was good so I took a piece and I told him I would phone him if it sold. Three weeks later it did.’

For the last three years the gallery has been organising a charity project where they invite artists to customise small plaster models, called Phing Things, which they then auction off to raise money for St Christopher’s Hospice in Sydenham. Last year they raised over £9,000. ‘My dad passed away there and they were absolute angels so it’s good to be able to give something back,’ says Oakley. Whether it’s charity or offering a way to enjoy the flourishing art scene of south east London, he’s certainly giving plenty back.

Peckham Levels

The plans to convert Peckham’s underused town centre car park into a pioneering cultural workspace have taken a major step forward. A lease has now been provided to Make Shift, giving the green light for construction to begin on the exciting new project, Peckham Levels. The result is that Peckham Levels is now planned to remain in place for six years, from when the doors open this coming summer until July 2023.

Peckham Levels will offer workspaces for Peckham creatives

Peckham Levels will offer workspaces for Peckham creatives

Over the coming months the empty structure of the car park will be transformed to house a mixture of creative workspaces including 50 private and shared studios, a handful of larger offices, shared making spaces, manual workshops, music rehearsal studios, print rooms and ceramics facilities.

The site will also include open public spaces with food and drink outlets and a community café, an event and exhibition venue, and fitness studios. The alleyway that runs alongside the car park will be converted into a community garden and host regular markets. In total, the project will cover more than 90,000 sq ft and house a working community of up to 600 people.

While Southwark Council has been working on the lease arrangements, Make Shift has continued its outreach work in the local community. A steering group of local residents, business owners, community groups, arts organisations and council workers has been assembled and meets regularly to discuss the project.

The Peckham Levels team has also been busy meeting potential operators, members, local community groups, charities and arts organisations to build relationships and discuss how Peckham Levels can partner with them in the future.