Ambrose Heal had a keen interest in fine art and his involvement with painting and drawing paralleled his development as a designer, manufacturer and retailer. That’s why it’s hardly surprising, given his interest in the relationship between art, design and commerce, he should set up a gallery at Heal’s to show the most innovative art of the period.
Design Industries Association
A good friend of Ambrose Heal, Frank Pick (1878-1941) was not only the managing director of the London Underground during the 1920s but also a passionate advocate of design. In 1915, he and Ambrose decided to found the Design and Industries Association (DIA), of which they were active members, to promote links between designers, manufacturers and retailers.
Taking this commitment further, in 1917 Ambrose opened the Mansard Gallery within Heal’s Tottenham Court Road store with Pick providing Underground poster artwork for the first exhibition ‘Poster Pictures’. Many of those same graphic artists whose work was featured were commissioned to design posters for Heal’s newest space, including Pick’s star designer Edward McKnight Kauffer who produced artwork for each of the London Group’s shows (one of the oldest artist led organisations in the world).
The Bloomsbury Set
The fourth floor gallery was a well-known spot frequented by Bloomsbury group luminaries such as Virginia Woolf and Wyndham Lewis. Such was his connection to the Mansard that in 1920 Lewis used the venue to host his ‘Group X’ show, bringing together a number painters and sculptors from the British Vorticist movement.
Celebrated figures such as Claud Lovat Fraser, who played an important role in graphic design and theatre set design in the early 20th century, also held exhibitions of their work at the Mansard Gallery and designed the company’s seminal posters, while its catalogues contained essays by influential art critics.
Exhibition of French Art
The gallery’s most influential event took place in 1919, when noted critic and poet Sacheverell Sitwell organised the Exhibition of Modern French Art. This ground-breaking show, which introduced Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Amedeo Modigliani to the British public, was widely praised by modernist critics such as Roger Fry who, upon seeing the show, commented ‘what innumerable different visions, one can enjoy in this gallery!’
Others were less impressed by the new style of painting on show, with one reviewer for the Times describing the works as ‘ghastly’. Literary giant Evelyn Waugh was also not enamoured by Heal’s penchant for daring modern forms, later referring to such pieces in his 1939 short story Work Suspended as ‘those vague assemblages of picnic litter which used to cover the walls of the Mansard Gallery in the early twenties’.
As the decade progressed, the Mansard Gallery increasingly served to showcase the latest developments in interior design with some of the new styles of furniture proving more controversial than the artworks. From 1928, the ‘Modern Tendencies’ series of exhibitions continued to shock commentators by bringing tubular style furniture to the high-street and thus introducing Britain’s homeowners to the ‘moderne’ and Art Deco styles that were sweeping across the continent.
Unlike the art shows, these events tended to consist of fully-formed rooms in which the furnishings were carefully arranged to demonstrate how they could be laid out in the home. Complete with displays from the renowned florist Constance Spry, this novel approach to display was in no small part thanks to Heal’s resident interior designer, and mistress of Ambrose Heal, Prudence Maufe who later became head of the Mansard Gallery.
The Mansard’s Legacy
Sadly, the Mansard Gallery is no longer in existence, and details of all the exhibitions held there are incomplete, but the records we do have confirm its influential position in the culture of the time.
Hosting shows by notable British artists – interspersed with exhibitions of contemporary furniture, fabrics and industrial design – the Mansard Gallery played a valuable role in creating the cultural landscape we enjoy today.