History

Studio Voltaire was founded in 1994 by a collective of twelve artists, who set up a studio space in a disused tram shed on Voltaire Road, Clapham, responding to the lack of affordable studios in the local area. In 1999 the organisation moved to its current location on Nelsons Row, becoming a registered charity in 2001. The move to a larger site enabled us to expand our provision of affordable studios, offer a dedicated gallery space in a Victorian former mission hall and increase our engagement with the local area through community partnerships.

In the early 2000s, the organisation continued as an artist-run space; with studio artists working in the office, volunteering their time and labour, and acting as trustees of the charity. During this period, the gallery provided opportunities for resident studio artists to exhibit their work; to external artists who hired the space; and through open submission exhibitions. The artistic programme was relaunched in 2004 with TONIGHT!, a large-scale group exhibition of over 50 international and UK based artists curated by Paul O’Neill. This exhibition signaled a shift towards a more curated programme of commissions and exhibitions. Artists commissioned during this period included Nairy Baghramian, Lali Chetwynd (now Monster Chetwynd), Thea Djordjadze, Anthea Hamilton & Nicholas Byrne, Bod Mellor, Doreen McPherson, Henrik Olesen, Elizabeth Price and Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan. The organisation later transitioned towards its current structure, with the appointment of external staff members and trustees. Joe Scotland became the organisation’s inaugural Director in 2010.

Studio Voltaire has always held a strong commitment to supporting underrepresented artists and emerging practices, allowing the organisation to offer an alternative and agenda–setting view of contemporary practice. Our strengths and ambitions have grown over the years and we are proud of our unique way of working, which remains close to the creative process at a grassroots level and puts great emphasis on risk–taking.

We have grown from a local artist–run collective to an internationally celebrated arts organisation which receives regular funding from Arts Council England as a National Portfolio Organisation and reaches significant local and international audiences.

We have developed an outstanding track record of supporting artists at a pivotal stage in their careers. As a direct result of our programmes, many participating artists have gone on to be awarded or nominated for prizes including Turner Prize, Carnegie Prize, Wolfgang Hahn Prize and MacArthur Genius Fellowship, as well as participating in major international arts festivals including Venice Biennale, Skulptur Projekte Munster, Whitney Biennial and documenta. Studio Voltaire commissions have also gone on to be presented at, and collected by, major institutions including Tate Modern, Tate Britain, British Museum, Museum Ludwig, Moderna Museet and Migros Museum.

Since 2002, Studio Voltaire has been committed to delivering wide reaching education and learning projects, ranging from artist commissions co–created with communities and schools, to programming festivals with local partners. In 2011 we initiated Not Our Class, a unique two–year programme of knowledge sharing, collaboration, research and practice, taking the work of Jo Spence as a starting point for investigating the legacy and potentials of her work in relation to contemporary culture and life, which transformed our approach to programming. Today, this work has grown exponentially, along with our commitment to audiences, collaborators and our neighbourhood. Our programme of collaborative projects, alternative learning programmes, partnerships with schools, colleges and local organisations, as well as our offsite commissions are widely celebrated and reach broad audiences, both locally and internationally.

In 2010, Studio Voltaire established House of Voltaire – an influential commissioning and fundraising platform for both emerging and established artists, designers and makers. House of Voltaire first occurred biennially as a temporary store in London’s Mayfair and has held international presentations in Miami and Melbourne. To date, House of Voltaire has generated over £2 million in funds for Studio Voltaire’s artistic and community programmes.

In 2021 Studio Voltaire will reopen following a two–year capital project that will enable us to expand and redevelop our 975m2 site, the most ambitious transition in our 26–year history. This timely and transformative development will provide 42% more affordable artists’ studio spaces and increase public space by 233%. The Studio Voltaire Capital Project offers an unprecedented opportunity to transform and expand our support of artists as well as our cultural offering to local and international audiences.

History of our buildings and surroundings

Typical of many London sites, Studio Voltaire’s buildings are a combination of different styles and periods of architecture that have been patchworked together over the years and repurposed for different uses.

Studio Voltaire’s gallery space is defined by a dramatic vaulted ceiling and is flooded with natural light through large church–style windows. This part of the building dates from 1889 as an annex to a much larger adjoining Methodist church and was used as a mission hall to reach the local ‘unchurched’ and underprivileged. In 1940, the neighbouring church was severely bomb damaged, leading to its eventual demolition. Services were held in the space now occupied by our gallery until the replacement church was built. In subsequent years, the chapel formed a part of a number of conjoined post–war industrial buildings, which now form Studio Voltaire’s wider buildings. These spaces were previously used by upholsterers and engineering workshops. In the early 1910’s plans were submitted for The ‘MIKADO’ Rink, a large ice rink on this site which remained unrealised.

In the late nineteenth century, although there were still many wealthy residents of Clapham, Nelson’s Row became a notorious slum and was shown on Charles Booth’s poverty map as ‘very poor’. In the early 1930’s the local authority compulsorily purchased the properties neighbouring our site and replaced it with the current William Bonney housing estate which stands today.

The areas surrounding Studio Voltaire have a rich social history. The Clapham Sect, a group of early 19th century social reformers who were based in the area, led a sustained campaign supporting both the abolition of slavery movement and reform of the penal system. The roles of William Wilberforce, Zachariah Macaulay and John Venn are acknowledged locally by memorial plaques and street names. Across various locations in Clapham, a number of circular tunnel entrances of deep level shelters are still visible. First built during the Second World War to shelter civilians, in 1948 they housed 230 settlers from the Empire Windrush as a short–term measure. As the nearest labour exchange to the shelter was Brixton, many of the settlers set up home there, making it one of Britain’s first Caribbean communities. Renowned photographer Harry Jacobs set up a studio on Landor Road in the late 1950’s, documenting thousands of people living locally, including many of the Windrush generation and the new Carribean community living there. Today, the Clapham North deep–level shelter, located nearby to Studio Voltaire, is occupied by Growing Underground, a sustainable hydroponic farm.

Clapham has strong links to LGBTQ+ histories. As well as being an established site for cruising, the Common hosted Andrew Logan’s Alternative Miss World in 1978, and the London Pride festival was held there in 1996 and 1997. In 2005 Jody Dobrowski, a 24 year old assistant bar manager, was murdered on Clapham Common in a homophobic attack. Dobrowski’s murder became a landmark case in Britain, where Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was utilised in sentencing the killers, empowering courts to impose tougher sentences for offenses motivated or aggravated by the victim’s sexual orientation. The area has also housed important venues such as The Two Brewers, which has been a gay venue since 1981. In 2019, Wandsworth LGBTQ+ Forum and Studio Voltaire collaborated to install a permanent rainbow plaque at Clapham Junction Station in acknowledgment of the homophobic abuse suffered there by poet and author Oscar Wilde whilst being transported to Reading Gaol. Wilde wrote about the incident in ‘De Profundis’, his autobiographical letter written to his partner Lord Alfred Douglas in 1897.

Several local sites are associated with important, interconnecting histories relating to women in healthcare and protest.  In 1916, the South London Hospital for Women and Children opened on Clapham Common. Founded by Eleanor Davies-Colley and Maud Chadburn, two of the earliest women in the UK to practice as surgeons, the hospital employed an all-women’s medical staff, and only admitted female patients with the exception of children under 7.  At the time, the hospital served the dual purpose of improving medical care for women, and enhancing career prospects for female medical practitioners when many hospitals refused to employ women.  The hospital was closed in 1984, during a period of cuts to the NHS and, from July 1984 to March 1985, the site was occupied by hundreds of women protesting its closure.  The occupation began as a ‘work in’ with staff continuing to work to keep the hospital running, and later developed into a community occupation, with other groups using the space for social and community activities. Groups such as Women Against Pit Closures and women from Greenham Common were also hosted, so they could take part in demonstrations in London.

A pharmacy was opened by Henry Deane at 17 The Pavement in late 1837. In the following century, it was bought by Agnes Borrowman – one of a few female pharmaceutical chemists at the time. She later paired up with Margaret E. Buchanan, and together they ran the business and a pharmaceutical school within the premises that trained and employed only female chemists. Deane & Co became one of the leading centres in the country and, overcoming many of the obstacles facing women at the time, Borrowman became the Pharmaceutical Society’s first female examiner in 1924. The store closed in 1986 and the building, with its beautiful hand painted advertisement or ‘ghost sign’, has since gained Grade II listed status.

Clapham is also the home of Royal Trinity Hospice. Founded in 1891, it is the oldest hospice is the United Kingdom. The hospice has become one of the leading specialist palliative care centres in the UK, annually supporting over 2500 patients onsite and within the community. 

Image credits

Studio Voltaire exterior, Nelsons Row, circa 2000. Courtesy of Studio Voltaire

Open Studios Flyer, 1994. Courtesy of Studio Voltaire.

Studio Voltaire AGM, Nelsons Row building, 2001. Courtesy of Studio Voltaire.

Studio Voltaire gallery space, Nelsons Row Building, circa 1997. Courtesy of Studio Voltaire.

Studio Voltaire, Voltaire Road building, circa 1995. Courtesy of Studio Voltaire.

Flyer for Open Studios, 1997. Courtesy of Studio Voltaire.

Studio Voltaire AGM, Voltaire Road building, circa 1997.

THE CONSUMERIST THEATRE OF DESIRE, exhibition brochure, 1994. Courtesy of Studio Voltaire.

Paul Riley, Voltaire Road building, circa 1996, Courtesy of Studio Voltaire.

Lali Chetwynd, The Walk to Dover, Flyer, 2005. Courtesy of the artist and Studio Voltaire.