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SAVE the Horse Hospital

Underground culture, occasionally hijacked by the art establishment, has a London home that is anything but mainstream.


Text: Michaela Freeman | Images: Ed Sykes (portrait)

Turn into a mews tucked behind the bustling Russell Square underground station and you discover the Horse Hospital, a place where the avant-garde and underground art is alive and well – and one of London’s best kept secrets. Step inside, down the stone-covered ramp, and you are hooked on the atmosphere.

Roger Burton has been running the space since 1993 and its ethos and cross-disciplinary programming is intertwined with his life-long passion for vintage clothes and fashion. He’s the original Mod who grew up on a farm and whose interest in vintage was ignited by seeing Bonnie and Clyde, Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie about 1930’s gangsters. Burton’s first venture, a wholesale Art Deco clothes shop in Leicester, initially did well until ‘punk came and killed the whole vintage business’. Following a move into London and selling at Portobello and Camden markets, he opened a shop specialising in rock'n'roll clothes, first on Chelsea’s King’s Road, and later in Covent Garden, right after it ceased selling fruit & veg. The progressive shop window attracted a lot of attention, displaying a CCTV monitor instead of the goods, Dutch and German leather coats, riding boots and forage caps. (1) 

A 1978 invitation to supply costumes for a film about 1960’s Mods kick-started Burton’s involvement with the industry.(2) Julian Temple had just finished his movie about the Sex Pistols, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, which coincided with the rise of the New Romantics – centred around The Blitz Club and bands like Duran Duran, Boy George and Spandau Ballet. Temple asked Burton to collaborate on music videos for these new groups. ‘In the early 1981, I didn't even know what a music video was; MTV hadn’t started yet.’ 

Fast forward 10 years and 150 music videos, and into the recession of 1991. Looking for somewhere permanent to store his substantial clothes collection, Burton came across the Horse Hospital, totally derelict at the time. After he secured a good deal and fixed it up, Burton felt there was a potential for the building beyond mere storage. The programme took off with a well attended fashion exhibition of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren (both just beginning to be collectable and the show travelled to Tokyo’s Shiseido Gallery) followed by a group of students from Chelsea College of Art.

 ‘We were very diverse, and tended to attract a distinct type of person, who wasn’t into mainstream art. I realised there was a group of individuals out there that hadn't been through the university system but were driven to create something, be it a photo, painting or whatever.’ Burton himself was making short films and found there was no platform for filmmakers to present their work. A friend, Paul Smith from Mute, helped to buy a projector and the film nights started in 1994. ‘We realised the film side was very complimentary to our art events and the word spread.’ They wanted to support minority groups but – significantly – ‘not anyone in particular’. 

It wasn’t until the initial 10-year lease expired and the owners tried to evict Burton that he set out to investigated the history of the building, with doubts of it ever being a ‘horse hospital’. Months of rummaging through dusty paperwork at the Metropolitan Archive paid off. He discovered the mews did belong to a series of veterinary doctors soon after it was built in 1797 – by Roger’s namesake, the famous, influential and prolific builder, James Burton.(3) Based on these findings, English Heritage duly listed the building thus saving it from being converted to a posh split-level restaurant. For the time being it continues to cater for art, albeit making it difficult for Roger to make any improvements. But having just a single old toilet is a small price to pay for survival!

Tai Shani is an artist who’s helped to run the space for the last six and half years. Apart from 6-7 exhibitions a year, they host about 4 events on average every week. Some of these are private hire events. A compromise? Not really, because together with Burton’s vintage clothes business on the first floor (Contemporary Wardrobe Collection) they not only help to fund the non-profit art events, but also provide a very significant (in numbers) curious and often engaging ‘secondary audience’ for the exhibitions. ‘I don't like private views but I do like coming to other people’s events here and watching people discover the art,’ says Burton.

A monthly Salon night, a free platform for people to bring and discuss their work in any media, ran for five years and brought together a group of people diverse in regards of both nationality and background, from artists and filmmakers, to writers and surgeons. Now external curators and groups organise regular eclectic, cross-disciplinary events at the Horse Hospital, such as the Light & Shadow Salon, primarily about film, but also art and music. Niche film festivals take place here too: London Underground Film Festival, London Animation Festival, and bi-annual Fashion in Film (founded and run together with Central Saint Martin’s). A recent exhibition of photographs by Gina Glover, Playgrounds of War, depicted deserted army bases. A subject rather personal to her as that’s the environment she grew up in, with a father in the secret service. Next up is Richard Stone’s ‘strange little sculptures’. 

What keeps Roger Burton going? When he spots a new, young, creative soul amongst the visitors. Having people come down to the Horse Hospital is like ‘inviting people to your front room... it's lovely to see faces engrossed in what they encounter’. That gives him faith. 

Link: www.thehorsehospital.com


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