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Angel descends on new gallery

27 February, 2020 — By John Gulliver

John Themis

JOHN Themis, an occasional contact, had proved a little “invisible”.

I knew he managed the well-known residential and retail complex, the Brunswick Centre, but I hadn’t realised he is one of those businessmen who loves the arts – and is, himself, of the arts.

It turns out that he has been a leading guitarist and songwriter – and has had numerous Top Ten numbers, including one for Emma Bunton – and written and arranged for Elton John, George Michael, Kylie Minogue, the Spice Girls and George Michael, plus a long line of other stars.

I met him on Thursday at a crowded opening, a little glitzy, of an art gallery at the Brunswick Centre that’s one of the largest private galleries I’ve seen. It covers well over 2,500 square feet and has more of a look of a public gallery about it than a private one. And it is John Themis’s creation!

Apparently, he was involved at a Boy George concert a couple of years ago when he came across the Henley Regatta Arts Festival – and a striking sculptured figure which set off thoughts about a more creative use of the large public space around which the award-winning Centre is designed. A conversation with a sculptor’s agent, Stephen Turner, led to the decision to convert a large empty unit into today’s Brunswick Art Gallery.

There are more than 20 artworks on display at the current exhibition – sculpted figures and heads, installations, paintings, oil, collages, several costing several thousand pounds, a few in the low hundreds. Apart from one work by the internationally known graffiti artist, Temper, priced at £72,000, there is a bit of an “affordable fair” flavour about what is an eclectic collection.

Len Gifford with his Olympic Angel

A head of Churchill by Stephen Kettle may lead to the creation of a large sculpture destined to command the public space. I understand John Themis is discussing with Stephen Kettle the possibility of sculpting a large figure made out of Welsh slate, destined for the open air public space in the heart of the Brunswick Centre. The public could buy a piece of slate, for say £10, which would be signed, and then made part of the work of art.

The 7ft 6ins high sculpture of an angel that originally drew Themis’s eye at the Henley Festival also caught mine.

The artist, Len Gifford, now 75, was a late starter in the art world. Growing up in Highbury, a pupil at Holloway Boys’ School, he became a structural engineer and perhaps would have stayed the course until retirement if he had not always wanted to be, essentially, an artist.

So, he gave up his position with the Milton Keynes authority – and became an art student. Unknown, in his 40s, setting out as a sculptor, he needed a part-time job – and got it, helping to make shop window mannequins for the leading designer Adel Rootstein, picked from 150 candidates. He based his mannequin figures on fashion models paid to “cat walk” for him while he drew them.

His figure of the angel, displayed at Henley, drew crowds in Bow during the Olympic Games when it was fixed to a church, 30 feet above the ground. It is beautifully made from resin – which can be easily mistaken at first as bronze – and sells for £7,950. He has another piece, a dancing angel, which extraordinarily he has been working on for more than 30 years. Not all that strange – for an artist!

Len is one of those artists who spent nearly half of his life working with slide rules, figures, and building sites, before art seduced him.

But he is still a practical man. When I rang him on Tuesday evening his wife said he was taking an art class. It turned out that his class is at the end of his garden where he takes his students in his studio for “life drawing” lessons.

Len, who has been around a lot, must have a lot to teach them.

• The Brunswich Art Gallery is at Unit 68, Marchmont Street, Brunswick Centre, WC1N 1AY, 020 8150 7225

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