Meet Two Of The Badass Women Disrupting London's Art Scene

Tracey Emin once said, "It's harder to find a good female artist than a good prime minister." Depending on how you define "good," she was right about one thing: Women in art have historically lagged behind their male counterparts.

Works by female artists do not sell for as much as those made by men, and the art scene in general is dominated by an array of powerful, intimidating male dealers and gallerists such as Larry Gagosian and Steve Lazarides. Women far outnumber men at art college and yet fewer manage to make a living working as artists. Why?

"It's been a Catch-22,” London Art Studies founder Kate Gordon told The Huffington Post earlier this year. “Prices won't rise for female artists until they're shown in major museums; museums won't show female artists until they achieve equal heights in the market. But, excitingly, more women are occupying key influential roles — from heading up galleries to curating museum content.”

Indeed, there is a new wave of young female faces at the forefront of the London art scene who are shifting the power balance. Twenty-something Hannah Barry turned her industrial living space in Peckham into her own gallery back in 2006. She now has 30 artists under her wing and established Bold Tendencies — a non-profit creative enterprise based in a multi-story car park — and put on an international show at the Venice Biennale.

Then, there’s 23-year-old heiress, gallerist, and patron India Rose James, one of the richest young people in the U.K. with an estimated fortune of £350 million. This spring, she opened the Soho Revue Gallery, an homage to her grandfather Paul Raymond, representing up-and-coming young artists, many of whom are female. And acclaimed playwright Polly Stenham and gallerist Victoria “Nutty” Williams, who established Camden Town's Cob Gallery in 2011, continue to exhibit both emerging and established artists such as Noemie Goudal and Juergen Teller, and have taken on the role of directors of art and events at Blacks Club on Dean Street.

There has also been a shift at the macro level. Last November, Georgia O'Keeffe's "Jimson Weed, White Flower No. 1," went for a record $44.4 million. At the same time, Victoria Siddall was appointed director of the Frieze Masters art fairs. This year, London’s Tate devoted a record five shows to female artists.

So, things are changing. Benjamin Godsill of Phillips auction house believes it could be because "people are looking for value, for things that are undervalued and that have been overlooked." Whatever the reason, the good news is that things are on the up for women in art. With that in mind, we meet two of the most exciting new female faces in the London art scene.

Photograph by Linda Brownlee.
THE DEALER: Megan Piper, 30, is a contemporary art dealer and co founder of The Line, a world-class sculpture trail that follows the Prime Meridian in East London.

Work never really stops for flame-haired Megan Piper. She looks fatigued, but happy, on a stiflingly hot Saturday afternoon in July after a Q&A with one of her artists, Neil Stokoe at the Redfern Gallery in Mayfair. She has just collaborated with the esteemed gallery to show a whole body of work from the 1960s that had never been seen before, locked away in Stokoe’s studio for the past half-century.

“I remember walking into his studio and seeing this sea of canvases stacked up against each other on every wall,” recalls Piper. “It was thrilling, he would pull paintings out and every one was exciting and being around him you had the sense that he was someone who’d been overlooked.”

Piper is an innovator in the London art market, seeking out and rediscovering artists that were seemingly overlooked in what should have been their heyday. The Telegraph dubbed her a “white knight” for older artists. This is, in fact, how Stokoe came to find her.

“It was by chance that he saw that when he was doing the crossword. It took him months to contact me and we had this strange phone conversation where it transpired. He didn’t have an email address or mobile phone or any Internet presence and he wanted me to go and meet him at Richmond train station. He was going to take me to his studio to see the work.”

What she found was a lively, exciting, and coherent body of work. “He’d been part of this historic year at the Royal College with Hockney, Kitaj, Alan Jones, and Frank Bowling, and he’d been friends with Francis Bacon in the late Sixties. Here was an artist who’d sustained his studio practice, but no one had really taken a closer look. This last show at Redfern was the first time most of these paintings had been seen by the public and I think it highlights he is an important link in modern British painting.”

Piper’s path to success hasn’t been entirely conventional. She didn’t study History of Art, nor did she intern amongst the perfectly preened, honey-highlighted Sloanes at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.

“This was never the plan as such. My parents divorced when I was nine and I’d spend weekends with my father going to museums and galleries. I remember really strongly Paul Klee and Patrick Caulfield and Lucio Fontana at the Hayward Gallery. I applied to university not having a clue about what I wanted to do and ended up reading psychology at Edinburgh. When I came out, I asked myself where I felt most comfortable and the answer was always in an art gallery. I didn’t have the academic training, but I grew up with my parents putting postcards in my lunch box every day of different artworks and asking questions in a very philosophical way.”


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Photo: Courtesy of The Line.

There are two sides to Piper’s professional life: What she calls the “commercial” side looking after artists such as Stokoe, and the other, charitable side.

“The Line is such an important project,” Piper says of the East London sculpture trail. She raised hundreds of thousands to bring into being that features work from big names such as Mark Wallinger and Gary Hume. “It’s about regeneration and discovering modern and contemporary art outdoors in an area that doesn’t have public art."

“It’s democratizing the presentation of work and having a project that’s free, open, and accessible for everyone to enjoy and discover a less familiar London landscape that’s changing so rapidly. I hope it’s opening people’s eyes to modern and contemporary art and opening them up to new audiences."

So what are her plans for the future?

Long term, she sees herself as the co-founder and director of the Line, but she also recently participated in Art 15, her first art fair.

“It was interesting to be showing in the Emerge section of the fair for young galleries who work with emerging, or in my case re-emerging, markets. No one day is the same for me, I do activities that relate to the Line and the artists I work with — meeting potential patrons for the Line, talking to project managers, studio visits with the artists I work with, and planning ideas for future shows. I have to get out and engage with the world because that’s what keeps the new ideas coming.”

Photograph by Michaela Peker.

THE ARTIST: Nettie Wakefield, 27, is a pencil artist from Kentish Town, North London.

Former model Wakefield's live-work space (that she shares with her interior designer boyfriend) is nothing short of chaotic. The open plan kitchen, living room, and studio is full to the brim with books, magazines, and art paraphernalia — as well as the odd coffee cup — spread over every surface. Centre of the room, pride of place, is her drawing easel, and on it resides a huge half-done drawing of the back of her own head, an intricate hairstyle drawn immaculately and beautifully in tonal grays. This one in particular is for an extremely famous, extremely prolific collector, who I’m not allowed to name.

Wakefield's almost photo-real drawings of the backs of people’s heads have caught the eye of a whole host of high-profile individuals, including actors, collectors, artists, and moguls. With a top secret, but hugely exciting, show in the pipeline, Wakefield's career is on the up right now. But it’s hasn’t been easy.

“Things were really slow for a time last year and I was feeling poor and disheartened,” recalls the former face of Levi’s jeans.

“I went to the Chiltern Firehouse one night and I was showing my work to everyone who would look. One of the people I met that night said I should email him the next day with images of all the work I had available. I did, and he came to see them, made a little video on his phone and said he’d take them all and could I do six more."

“Obviously I said yes. Then he said, 'Can you do one double the size? And if that’s approved, another nine?' That was last November. I know who they are for, but I’m not allowed to say right now.”
Image courtesy of Nettie Wakefield.
'Girl with Tartan Scarf' (2014).
Her work has also been bought by Robert Pattinson, a childhood friend, and his ex-girlfriend Kristen Stewart as well as the actress Lizzie Caplan. It is in the permanent collections of both the Groucho Club and Soho House.

Art was always the plan for Wakefield, although she lost her way for a time.

“I went to Chelsea to do a foundation course, then lost my faith because there was one girl who shaved this guy’s head and just stuck the hair to the wall and called it art. I just thought, I don’t know how to compete with this. I don’t know where I fit in if this is the art world. So I dropped out and thought I’d study it so I could understand it a bit better. I went to do History of Art at Leeds University. I still don’t really understand it,” she says with a wry smile.

After Leeds, Wakefield applied to do a Masters in drawing and was accepted into a course at Wimbledon. This is where the theme of backs of heads arose.

“I needed to come up with an idea for a project at Wimbledon and I was so out of the loop and not feeling very imaginative. I was in a lecture and staring at the back of a girl’s head and she had a really intricate plait and I was craning my neck to try and make out her face and thought, actually this is quite intriguing because I quite like not knowing — there’s a space there to imagine. So I started drawing her with biro then I started looking at the other people’s heads in front of me and the rest is history.”

Says one famous collector that wishes to remain anonymous: “I immediately thought Nettie’s work looked cool. That you can kind of see someone’s face through the back of their head, it’s an interesting way to look at someone, that sometimes, things that aren’t revealed so obviously have mysterious way of communicating. Showing nothing is often more interesting than showing or sharing everything. Then there’s obviously her technical craftsmanship, and the fact the drawings are impeccably and exquisitely executed.”

Next for Nettie is a trip to L.A. and a possible departure from the theme which cemented her success.

“I decided to leave the heads behind at one point. After about 100, I thought I’d done enough — but then I got a huge commission! But I’m off to L.A. in January in search of new inspiration. I kind of have to make this work as I could never, ever imagine doing anything else!”
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