South Bank shows

The battle for best art gallery in SE1 is hotting up with the relocation of the Saatchi Collection to London’s County Hall, says Francesca Syz

Charles Saatchi opens his new art gallery in County Hall on London’s South Bank this week to the sound of much huffing and puffing from the art world. This is mostly because he’s bagged a 3700m2 space along one of the hottest mainstream tourist spots in the capital, right next door to the London Eye and in the same vicinity as the Tate Modern, just to show, in essence, stuff he happens to like, most of which, his critics say, has had its day.

Until recently, Saatchi housed his unparalleled collection of contemporary Brit art (the YBAs as they were known during the 1990s, which included Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Gary Hume, Marc Quinn, Jenny Saville) in a vast, poshed-up paint warehouse in not-exactly-mass-market St John’s Wood.

The new gallery, which opens with a Hirst retrospective, still houses the old classics like Emin’s bed, Hirst’s tiger shark and Quinn’s delightful head of frozen human blood, but will include a new collection by the Chapman brothers plus others. But not all work is by the not-so-Y-anymore BAs. There’s also a room full of canvases by John Bratby painted during the ‘kitchen sink’ era of the 1950s, another full of paintings by Patrick Caulfield, and work by Paula Rego hangs in one of the corridors.

County Hall was built in 1933. Although it is largely Edwardian Municipal in style (think long oak-panelled corridors, high ceilings, parquet floors and sweeping marble staircases), there are quirks, which include different fireplaces in every room sourced from townhouses all over London. Saatchi’s brief to the architect RSWL (which is also currently transforming St Pancras Chambers) was to create a high-tech contemporary working gallery, without changing the look of the interior.

‘English Heritage was delighted,’ explains project architect Jelena Tomic, ‘because it looked like nothing had been done.’ In fact, quite a lot has been done, but hardly anything cosmetic. New features include a lighting system in the hallways by Fabbian Lighting (moody and historic) and James Bond-style Maglocks on every door, allowing them to swing shut in the event of a fire.

A large flashing red heart installation by Tim Noble and Sue Webster grabs the attention of passers by, drawing them up the steps of the gallery’s riverside entrance. Once inside, visitors pass through a corridor still adorned with the names of past Greater London Council and London County Council leaders like some local council hall of fame, through to the back half of the building where the gallery is spread over the ground and lower ground floor. It feels a bit like walking around someone’s rather grand house rather than a museum.

Dotted sporadically along corridors are pieces like the revolting Vermin Death Stack by Dave Falconer (the 3m-high conical-shaped sculpture made of freeze-dried mice corpses purchased from every pet shop south of Edinburgh). Then there’s Turk’s sleek, shiny black, life-sized reproduction of a garbage dumpster and the fantastically real wax work Delivery Man by Duane Hanson. Down one corridor are seven portraits of Henry VIII and his wives by Hiroshi Sugimoto. As is Saatchi’s wont, everything inspires a reaction.

Oh the historic irony of it all. Ex-adman Saatchi is probably best known for the Conservative advertising campaign that helped bring down the Labour government in 1979 with the phrase ‘Labour isn’t working’. Margaret Thatcher would then go on to abolish the GLC in 1986, leaving County Hall crying out for, erm, a private art collection.

The Saatchi Gallery, County Hall, South Bank, London SE1

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