From opera singer in France to art dealer in Castle Street

Lest We Forget

If you’re looking for a range of art in Tunbridge Wells, Redleaf Gallery could be right up your street. Fred Latty chats to art dealer Nick Hills about how the recession has affected the town, his love of watercolour and why investors should proceed with caution…

Tell us how the gallery got started
The background of Redleaf, which I started in 1999, is very interestingly coincidental, in as much as I wasn’t an art dealer until 1997. I was an opera singer, but I had a stroke at the end of 1996 in France, which shook me up a bit and slowed my singing a certain amount. I decided to stop singing and do something else, and the something else was art dealing, which was always my second love.

Do you specialise in specific types of art?
The first, and indeed the lasting thing I’m really fond of is watercolour; anything from the 18th to the 20th century. The first four or five years were exclusively watercolour, and I collected a lot. I had a gallery at home in London, which used to have openings and was quite good, but I was just beginning to look around, as I felt a public face of a gallery would be better than a private one. This shop was already a gallery and was up for sale.

What kind of artists do you work with?
They’re very varied. There have been a number of contemporary Dutch artists, but the majority tend to be from the southeast. The internet, of course, has been an endless source of possibility, but also frustration, because once your website or email is out, lots of people will want to display their work and sometimes there are too many. We’ve settled around a set of established and steady artists; on the whole, a gallery should busy itself with representing artists, not with trying to find the latest thing.

In what ways has Redleaf developed?
It has changed quite a lot over the last few months. Upstairs, I’m going back to a slightly more traditional style of art gallery that’s more 18th century, which is an interesting redevelopment, rather than a new development, and we’ll see how Tunbridge Wells likes it.

How do you fund the business?
The gallery’s supported entirely through sales. It’s fair to say we have, over the last 15 years, changed fantastically. When we were originally set up, we took over from a fairly, but not entirely, traditional gallery selling second-hand and new works of the 19th and 20th centuries, both oil and watercolour. We were the same sort of gallery, so it wasn’t a very great change, but the great press was for contemporary art through the first ten years of this century. On the whole, the gallery has always followed my enthusiasm rather than anybody else’s. You’ve got to follow your own instincts and, to some extent, your heart.

Has the recession had an impact on you?
After the government announced its intention of making significant spending cuts in 2010, the market was simply decimated. One year, we only turned over £50,000, which was under a third of what we’d been doing the year before. It has started to pick up, but even now it’s nowhere near the levels of before the recession. We lost a fair proportion of our customer base, because people move on, and we haven’t managed to replace them quite in the way I would have expected, simply because of the recession. This isn’t a very expensive gallery to run, because our expenses are quite low. Even so, it still takes £35,000 to pay the rates.

And how have things been more recently?
The Christmas before last, we had the best Christmas sales ever. We sold £25,000 worth in a couple of weeks, which was good and encouraging. It was doing well last year, and then suddenly when we came back from holiday, everybody was holding their hands up again. People are still spending, but moderately.

Do your clients generally know what they’re looking for when it comes to buying art?
The footfall of customers is completely different, for example, to what you would get in The Pantiles. You get a lot more incidental visitors and you can sell small things to them for £35 or £45. Some people spend quite a long time looking around, and some people come in and immediately we start talking and you know this is likely to be something.

Is being so close to London a challenge?
More often, people might see something in London and then come here and find it slightly cheaper. It’s to our advantage we’re not paying London rates, so you could say this is London but lower!

Are there many opportunities for promoting the gallery?
We do fairs like the South East Fair in Tunbridge Wells, which was an adventure. We covered our costs last year, but they’ve learned that they really have to publicise it much more widely this year. I also do the Affordable Art Fair every year, which is very good on the whole.

Have you noticed many changes in your customer base?
People come and go, but on the whole we’re very lucky, because we’ve had some very loyal customers. My guess is that, over the last four or five years, we’ve had slightly fewer couples who both work and have a lot of disposable income. On the other hand, we’ve reduced our prices slightly in that we have a more affordable variety, which sells terribly well. I can say with an absolutely straight face that you really will find something from £200 to £4,000 or £5,000.

Is the art scene thriving in Tunbridge Wells?
We’ve seen a lot of new galleries open in the last 18 months, in addition to the galleries that were there already. I don’t know, but it may be that, for a little while, Tunbridge Wells is actually overstocked with galleries. Of course, places get a reputation for having a thriving market, which I think Tunbridge Wells has, and that sort of thing snowballs in the sense that a thriving market tends to produce interested customers, which tends to produce a thriving market, and so it goes round. Certainly in the southeast, you can look at the opening of some really big galleries. From my point of view, it happened to be my passion and, on the whole, art does sell itself; you don’t need to be a salesman. There are plenty of pictures here that seize the person by the throat and there’s nothing I can say that will make much difference.

Can art investment ever be a sure thing?
I don’t think anybody, even those who are creaming off the very top of the market, can be certain that something that’s worth £4million this year is going to be worth £4million next year. By no means is it as certain or secure as taxation experts and people who value collections would like to suggest. Things will come and go and in the end, quality will out. If you buy something you really love and hang on to it, it’s almost certain to appreciate, but it’s absolutely not certain you’re going to get thousands for it. You might get thousands for it next year, but possibly not the year after.

How do you ensure sustainable business?
I started on a naïve optimism, which was justified, as we made £100,000 in the first year, and we haven’t looked back. Our annual income has varied very widely; at the bottom of the recession, it sank to £50,000, and at the top, it was up to about £160,000. The gallery has never filled me with such alarm that I’ve felt like I can’t carry on with it.

What’s your view on how Tunbridge Wells culture is doing in general?
We’ve lost a lot of good shops in the last 15 years. I would have thought the tendency is down rather than up, except this sort of business, which is doing fairly well. I don’t know what forces are driving the art market at the moment, but I suspect they’re not all entirely related to the art market. Personally, I’m happy we have a thriving art market and a thriving number of galleries because, on the whole, it’s something that encourages customers to come back.

Finally, what does the future hold for Redleaf?
If you had asked me that question 15 years ago, I would have liked it to become what it has become now. I’m happy for it to stay the same and hope that it more or less will. So far, we’ve managed to keep the show on the road and my ambition is to slightly improve the range of artists represented and rebuild the earlier side of the gallery.

1 Castle Street, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1XJ 01892 526 695

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