I’m standing in a palatial flat in one of the most beautiful squares in Brighton, in a huge whitewashed room flooded with natural light. The lucky man who lives here, Ted Davis, is showing me around. His home isn’t usually open to the public, but this month anyone can wander in. Ted is a photographer — rather a good one, in fact. His perceptive portraits adorn these walls, alongside his still lifes of wilting flowers, and for the next four weekends his splendid apartment in Palmeira Square will become a temporary exhibition space. It’s part of an annual festival here in Brighton called Artists Open Houses, in which hundreds of local artists like Ted transform their homes into pop-up galleries. ‘It’s like hosting a party,’ he tells me. ‘It’s much less formal than a gallery.’ Last year, he entertained several thousand people here.
Artists Open Houses is a great way of bringing together artists and art-lovers. If you’re an artist, you don’t have to audition for a gallery. If you’re an art-lover, you can meet the artist, and see their work in situ. And if you see something you like, you don’t need to pay a fat commission to some middleman. It works for buyers and for sellers. Everybody wins.
Although it seems like a modern concept, Artists Open Houses actually began way back in 1982, when a painter called Ned Hoskins opened up his house during the Brighton Festival to show his work and the work of like-minded artists. This innovation proved so popular — especially with punters who didn’t usually go to galleries — that his arty neighbours followed suit. Since then, his DIY scheme has grown and grown. Last year a quarter of a million people visited 200 houses around Brighton, spending more than a million pounds en route. During the past 30 years, Ned’s bright idea has inspired numerous imitators, but nowhere else has it taken off to the extent that it has in Brighton. In theory, it’s something you could do almost anywhere. In practice, it’s a perfect fit for this bohemian seaside town.
With a dynamic art school, glorious light and easy access to London, Brighton is home to lots of artists, but it lacks a major gallery to showcase their work. And while people in more strait-laced places might shudder at the idea of throwing open their doors to hordes of strangers, Brighton has always kept an open house. As a party town, somewhere to let your hair down, it has welcomed all-comers, from Regency dandies to Mods and Rockers.
Artists Open Houses isn’t just a great way to discover new artists. It’s a great way to rediscover Brighton. Usually, like most visitors, I head straight for the seafront. This time, armed with a handy guide (which doubles as a map and catalogue), I embark on a backstreet tour, past places I’ve never seen before. With more than 200 participating houses, you’ll never get round all of them, but there are a dozen different walking trails, each devoted to a different part of town. It’s easy to make your own selections, and with several artists in each house, there’s an enjoyable element of pick’n’mix.
From Ted’s apartment in Palmeira Square, I make my way across Brighton to Arundel Mews, an old stable where Kate Jenkins has her studio. She makes crocheted designs of everyday objects. Food is a particular favourite — she’s knitted a full English breakfast, even a plate of fish & chips. It sounds a bit twee, but it’s actually the best sort of Pop Art — bold, iconic and full of fun. ‘People get it straightaway,’ she says. ‘It makes them laugh.’ And that’s a big part of its charm. This mews is full of artists. The Scottish painter Kirsty Wither (who exhibits at London’s Portland Gallery) has her studio upstairs. There’s a printmaker and a picture framer next door.
My next stop is the Yellow House in suburban Fiveways, home of the textile artist Jehane Boden Spiers. Her pretty Victorian villa is a treasure trove of contemporary art. She’s been holding open houses for ten years. ‘People love looking in other people’s houses,’ she says. As well as making her own work, Jehane’s family home is a forum for numerous other artists. It’s a little cottage industry, run from a laptop on the kitchen table. Liberated by the internet, artists aren’t so dependent on galleries anymore.
Despite their touchy-feely house style, there’s something distinctly Thatcherite about businesses like these. Instead of relying on state hand-outs, these artists have become entrepreneurs. Tooled up by the world wide web, they’re getting on their cyberbikes and connecting with new customers who’d never come across their work in a conventional exhibition space. The Yellow House is a virtual gallery, without the overheads of a high street shopfront. ‘It’s very sociable,’ says Jehane, a working mum with two young children. Maybe, for the Facebook generation, that’s the biggest draw.
I finish my aesthetic ramble in Ditchling, a few miles outside Brighton. This historic village is renowned for its artistic residents, past and present: Eric Gill and Edward Johnston; John Vernon Lord and Raymond Briggs…I’ve come to see the Handmade House, a renovated farmhouse on the wild edge of the village. It’s surrounded by trees and brambles, like a gingerbread house from the Brothers Grimm. A jolly, energetic Kiwi called Ralph Levy took it on 12 years ago. Since then, he’s transformed a hollow ruin into a cultural hideaway. This time last year, he had 1,000 guests every weekend. He shows me his forge and pottery, rebuilt from scratch in two derelict outhouses. As its name suggests, virtually everything in his house — fixtures, fittings, furniture — was made by him, by hand. We take a walk into the thick woods behind the house, where Ralph has built a little hut, decorated with pots and paintings, in the shadow of the South Downs.
Ralph is showing a dozen artists here this month, and cooking pizzas for visitors in the (handmade) clay oven outside. One of these artists is Gary Goodman, who joins us here today. A poet and a painter, he’s a wry, amusing man. Gary has exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal College of Art, but Ralph’s Hansel & Gretel cottage is the best forum for his expressionistic paintings. Childlike yet slightly sinister, they have a dark fairy-tale quality, a lot like the Handmade House. It’s time to go, but I’m eager to return. I’m not surprised that Artists Open Houses has proved so popular. It’s more intimate than visiting a normal gallery, more economical, and far more fun. It’s a smart response to these hard times, and a sign of things to come.
Artists Open Houses runs from 4 to 26 May. For details visit www.aoh.org.uk