‘Breathe shallowly,’ said Arthur Hobhouse. I must have looked nonplussed because then he added, ‘Smallpox spores.’ His eyes twinkled to show that he was joking; but, like all good situational humour, it was plausible. We were in the catacomb of the Dissenters’ Chapel at Kensal Green Cemetery, surrounded by plastic bags full of human remains. The air was wet, despite the dry heat of that hot summer day. There was a layer of what I hoped was mud between our shoes and the flagstones beneath. I had the impression that Arthur was pleased by my evident discomfort; as if he had planned for it in order to maximise the impact of what he was about to show me.
Presently Hobhouse and his business partner, Patrick Barstow, led me further into the crypt, where I was met by an arresting black and white photograph. A Beirut street urchin was looking at me with insolent eyes. He was holding a bright white cigarette between the tips of two filthy fingers; Noel Coward gone to seed. His lips were puckered into a sneer, which had released a plume of smoke from his mouth. He could not have inhaled such thick smoke. ‘Not quite so macho as you pretend’, I said to myself, cast into an uncharitable mood after having been unsettled.
The shot was taken by Sean Smith, an acclaimed war photographer, in 1997. Surrounded by the body bags, the air heavy with decay, it occurred to me that this Palestinian exile is likely to have died by now. This was sobering because we were probably born around the same time, a decade or so before the picture was taken. Fortune doesn’t long smile on the brave.
Smith is the third artist featured by Hobhouse and Barstow’s New Artists (NA), a venture that aims to introduce the work of lesser known or emerging artists to established collectors. Hobhouse is a gallerist who learned his trade from his renowned art dealer/collector father, Niall Hobhouse. Barstow is an older hand who recently founded P-Artist-Management (P-A-M); an agency designed to launch artists into the lucrative but bewildering fine art market, and then keep them there.
The partnership is convenient, certainly; yet they’re not without affection and they respect each other’s talents. Their shared gift is to find unusual, even challenging venues that help to contextualise their artists’ work. The catacomb was perfect for Smith’s most unnerving images, while the Dissenters’ chapel served well as a space for Smith’s interest in ‘non-conformists’: heroin addicts, the destitute and so forth.
NA’s previous outings have been to the Counter Cultural Space at antiquarian book dealer Maggs Brothers in Berkeley Square, where they exhibited Richie Culver (one of Barstow’s charges at P-A-M) and others. Then they displayed a comparative unknown called Orlando Campbell (the next big thing, Arthur says) in the former attic studio of Whistler and Singer Sargent, which happens to be situated in a Chelsea property owned by the Hobhouse family.
All three exhibitions were ‘near sell-outs’, with prices ranging around the four and five figure mark for the first two shows. 1,000s of punters came through the doors on the opening night, which surprised even the enthusiastic Hobhouse. Later this month NA will prepare a warehouse in Moscow Street for Adam Barker-Mill’s array of light installations. Moscow Street is, I’m told, smallpox-free.
New Artists (NA) specialises in short-term, high-impact exhibitions across London.