Updated: Jul 18, 2021
Welcome to McMillan Fine Art, a commercial art gallery at the heart of South Kensington in London. I worked here for almost six months on my gap year and am now close friends with Cameron and Drew McMillan, the owners of the gallery, and Carlos Salvador Mira, a restorer that works closely with the gallery. Cameron has kindly agreed to clear out the back room and let me have the space for a week in mid-September for my exhibition!
Photo taken by Mauricio Chamoro Osejo. Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/arq.mao/.
McMillan Fine Art is a very special place. The gallery is on Bute St, a pedestrian street just outside the French Lycée, sporting Italian cafes (and ice cream! Oddono's is arguably the best gelato in London), a Spanish desert store (the churros are delicious), and an English pub at the other end of the road. You can often hear a lively mixture of English, Italian, and French whilst walking down the road, and the already-vibrant atmosphere becomes even more energetic on Saturdays when Bute St turns into an open-air market.
But what is so special about the gallery is how it fills its space. The gallery itself consists of three small rooms, one behind the other. Here is a photo taken from the entrance off Bute St.
Cameron hangs the paintings in his gallery in a very special way. Most commercial galleries (including those dealing in old master paintings or antiques) exhibit their artworks in a very refined, modern fashion. Colnaghi's and Agnew's hang their Mayfair galleries with two or three works per wall. Coupled with sumptuous lighting and decorative wallpaper (often of velvety creams or sombre, subtle patterns), these galleries achieve a harmonised symmetry that creates a modern, elegant, and refined atmosphere.
But what modern galleries gain in aesthetic balance, they lose in traditional charm. Old exhibition salons of the nineteenth century were often hung with paintings stacked on top of each other, crowding the walls in rows of three or four. I visited the Pinacotteca di Brera in Milan today, and chanced across Angelo Ripamonti's nineteenth-century oil painting of the Brera galleries.
Angelo Ripamonti, 'Interior of the Pinacoteca di Brera', 1880-1890, Oil on canvas, Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan.
The Brera gallery today, of course, like the National Gallery or the Louvre, has adopted the modernised aesthetic of balancing paintings on the walls in isolated symmetries. But commercial galleries in the '70s, '80s, and '90s were mostly hung in this chaotic, old salon-like style. Like with Agnew's and Colnaghi's, these galleries have either modernised towards the cleaner aesthetic or gone out of business. But not McMillan and Son's! Through sheer force of will from Cameron, his South Kensington space has remained open for more than twenty-five years - and the exhibition aesthetic is the same as it was in the '90s. The gallery today, with paintings almost falling off the walls in a crowded cacophony, has a nostalgic atmosphere and charm that is hard to find in other contemporary, thriving, commercial counterparts.
And McMillan and Sons is still a primarily commercial space. The gallery works very closely with its restorer, Carlos Salvador Mira. Cameron has a property across the road (where one can find even more paintings than in the main gallery), and Carlos uses the top room as his atelier for restoration work. Here is the master and his studio!
The result of this close collaboration and friendship between dealer and restorer is that all the paintings and the frames in Cameron's gallery are in excellent condition. Walking into McMillan and Son's is like entering a gilded, golden salon from the past. The frames gleam off the crowded walls as gold and paint catch the eye in a confused, delightful chaos. Paintings are stacked atop one another on and against the walls, inviting the viewer to get up close and fish out what he or she wants to look, all whilst gingerly navigating the maze of frames, canvases and antique furniture. Art in the McMillan galleries, as it should be for a private owner, is a tactile, involved experience.
This is why I am so excited to hold my exhibition here. Walking towards the back room (where the exhibition will be held), will be like looking down a perspectival corridor into an enchanting past of gilded frames and antique oils. The eye is drawn down the gallery, where I hope to create my own enchanting space: an environment that sparks dynamic conversation between the past and the present. The eighteenth and nineteenth-century paintings that I bring back from abroad will be closely exhibited alongside the contemporary art of my friends. The small space will be like an electrical conductor, sparking new aesthetic and thematic connections between works from vastly different periods, styles, genres, and media. The game is to vitalise the antique paintings that I buy whilst supporting the contemporary art of my friends (and hopefully sell some paintings!). I could not think of a better space to hold such an exhibition. It will be loads of fun. Hopefully see you there soon!
More updates on the exhibition (including the works that I find - and have found!) will follow.
Lots of love,