Words Kirk Truman
Photography Paul Vickery
“Fitzrovia is my song-line, as the aboriginals would say.”
The usual radiance of positivity and aid from a recently discovered neighbour, this is found in the strikingly tall Rebecca Hossack. I am told to look here, to read this, observe, to go nowhere and to always listen, to learn. To watch the art and see, venture to the farthest corners our neighbourhood, to turn sleuth in searching for the previous occupants of her home, to be at home in her gallery(ies), Fitzrovia and always myself. I am told many things by Rebecca, many stories. There are many words that ring on, though the single most resounding sentiment in reference to hanging flowers from my window ledge is: “if one person makes a difference on their street and their community, it will change everything.” I told myself this article would not become personal, though if I am to abide the spirit of my neighbour, I can only be honest and at home in my thoughts.
Australian, a promoter of Aboriginal Art and other cultures, Rebecca was born in Melbourne, 1955. She began studying the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in the early ‘80s when she first came to England, soon after opting for a career in art. She found home along Warren Street and still, today, after establishing two successful Fitzrovia based galleries, with another in the heart of Lower Manhattan, New York, her presence is as fierce as her message: to create a place where people can come to find themselves in the sanctuary of the art, greenery and peace of her galleries. Her first gallery opened March 1988, Windmill Street, “it’s now a hairdressers!” she says, “it was very cheap. It was all done on a handshake. I didn’t have any money at all, so I borrowed £20,000 and used it to start the gallery.” I ask Rebecca what it is that brought her to the area: “It was a beautiful summer day, at that time no one ate outside in London, there were no tables and chairs, except on Charlotte Street. It was sunny, and everyone was sitting outside; I said ‘wow!’ It reminded me of Melbourne.”
The original gallery ran for nearly 20 years. With the approach of the lease expiring, she sought new ground moving the gallery to a larger three-story building on Conway Street. “After 20 years at Windmill Street the lease was up and I was worried that, with all the developments in the area, it’d be too expensive, and that’s when I found Conway Street in 2008. It was a dump; it was actually a recording studio where Jamie Oliver made his cooking programmes. It looked really bad, there were no trees, it looked really ugly.” In addition to the new Conway Street gallery, another smaller sister gallery was opened in the heart of Fitzrovia, Charlotte Street. Both galleries were opened within a year of one another; the smaller sister of the two was the former home of a bookshop. “It was a fantastic bookshop called Atlantic Bookshop. It was a left-wing bookshop – I think they moved to Brixton. The person who owned the house said to me, ‘why don’t you have it as a gallery and we’ll give you a very good rental rate to stop it becoming a chain store;’ Starbucks wanted to move in”.
Her spirit and message are found at both sites in Fitzrovia. The two sisters adopt Rebecca’s signature red tables and chairs, posted at the front of the galleries to bring informality and energy to the street. It becomes clear to me in talking to Rebecca that she feels the strong need to rebel, to adapt her environment to her own vision; one community embodying nature and sociability into each site. “There were these gloomy little businesses on Windmill Street. There were no trees and no tables and chairs. I painted the first gallery yellow and I had this campaign to get trees put outside. I got a skip and I planted trees and daffodils outside the gallery, the council couldn’t do anything. And then, eventually, they relented and now there’re trees all along the street. When you start doing that and you put tables and chairs outside it’s kind of like making the street less custom. And so other little galleries moved into Windmill Street and it became a really nice area; because there were galleries, coffee shops opened too. Conway Street was equally dreary with no trees; I wanted to bring life and energy to the street.” I was astounded to learn that in 2007 she raised over £20,000 running the New York Marathon to pay for trees to be planted on the very street I live, Maple Street. I am pleased to know she felt the need to plant greenery at the stone feet of the telecom tower.
Across the Atlantic lies the American cousin of the two sister galleries in Fitzrovia; set in the heart of what can only be described as a New York based match for the area. Nolita, or ‘NoLIta’ (short for ‘North of little Italy’), was described to me by Rebecca as being “the Fitzrovia of New York City, the only place I could open a gallery.” Mott Street runs from Bleecker Street in the north, downward (one-way, southbound) to Chatham Square in the south. I brave a cold, clear February morning from Prince Street Subway Station to make the walk 4 blocks east to Mott Street through the mountains of snow left by the sidewalks. The signature red table and chair, a tree planted by the entrance and a metal dog dressed in blue velvet in the window (compliments of artist Peter Clark) greets me along with gallery director, Kinsey Robb, and her associate, Allison Therrien. “The wood of the floor doesn’t exist anymore. It is Green Elm that existed when Abraham Lincoln was alive; the building was his monument for the hall of weapons for the law of independence during the civil war. He would’ve walked on our floor we think!” I recall Rebecca saying, as I look about the gallery, stepping over the slanted green elm floor where Lincoln once trod; thought to have been a butcher’s at one stage. The same spirit is embodied, the presence of greenery and trees, the informality of the table & chairs left by the entrance. Her energy is very much alive on Mott Street. The gallery is set very much in one of the most surprising neighbourhoods in Lower Manhattan. At the turn of every corner I look high up to wait for the view of the BT tower – instead I see The Empire State Building to the north, The Freedom Tower to the south, at the site of the World Trade Centre. Nolita and Fitzrovia were destined to be lovers from afar: “Rebecca and I met in the Hampton’s in July at an arts fair for a kind of impromptu interview. What I thought was going to be an hour long interview turned into a 6 hour hangout, I had my puppy in tow. We got along on a personal and artistic level,” says Kinsey Robb, on her first encounter with Rebecca. “The gallery has been here for about 3 years now so we’re still kind of in our infancy; I started in August 2013. There’s been a lot of exciting work going on, I don’t think there’s ever a dull moment in the gallery.”
As a neighbour of the Conway Street gallery, we humour ourselves that we will wave to each other from our rooftops from now on: “we have to make a high-line swinging between your roof and ours, like a cable car. You can swing down to our roof and we can swing over to yours; a jungle kind of thing.” I turn to look about the Conway Street gallery, strolling through the open space of the second floor and notice the simple symphony of a tap tap, the unlit lights hanging over the pane of glass. I begin to revisit the memory of a winter evening as a teenager when my first girlfriend showed to me the front of the Conway Street gallery, illuminated under the soft January snow. It is undeniable to me that her joy for greenery and flowers, for positivity, for peace, is inspiring to me and true to what Fitzrovia is; a haven for all those who aspire to create community. Quietly, one rainy January morning, I walked the sidewalk along Conway Street, past the lights that hang from the roof of the gallery and on into the square. As I passed No.29 Fitzroy Square and looked up to the blue plaque where the words ‘Virginia Woolf – Novelist and Critic lived here 1907-1911′ are inscribed, I wondered quietly whether my neighbour, the art promoter, the very tall and beautiful Rebecca Hossack, knew that she was an unlikely destine reincarnation of a woman who never lived, never spoke, was an invention; the fictitious Clarissa Dalloway. After all, what is certain is that my neighbour would insist on quite thoroughly buying the flowers herself.