Shopping: Drink...with thine eyes

John Windsor reports on art and alcohol - both celebrated in London's Eagle Tavern
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Clump, clump. You have entered the Eagle tavern on east-London's Farringdon Road, shrine of the emerging bare-floorboard culture. If you are untutored in the semiotics of bare boards you might assume you were in a working-class boozer. There are bare boards in the art gallery upstairs, too - a repository, you might similarly assume, of dull daubs from adult education classes.

Clump, clump. Dissonance sets in. Who are these scruffy yuppies jostling vociferously at the bar for platefuls of Italian ciabatta and tubs of olive paste? And what are those sumptuous little books on sale upstairs for pounds 120 a time, with rough-textured pages of poetry and exuberant, splashy images?

One can only guess at the silent oblivion into which the Eagle Tavern and the Eagle Gallery might have sunk if their young proprietors had had money enough to cover up those sonorous boards. For despite their cross- grain skidmarks from rubber heels and impasto of cigarette butts, bare- board floors no longer spell poverty. They are signifiers of a post-recession enterprise culture - youthful, classless, stripped to basics. Those who tread the boards in Farringdon are photographers, artists, journalists, architects - tongued and groovy young Spartans.

When David Eyre, now 35, and Michael Belben, 44, took over the Eagle Tavern six years ago, the country's economy was on the floor. The pub, on the corner of Bakers Row, was surrounded by windy vacant plots. "The most exciting thing you could watch", said Mr Eyre, "was a fish-and-chip paper proceeding up the road at 30 miles an hour".A year after they opened, Emma Hill, an Oxford graduate in English and former gallery administrator, presented herself at the bar of the Eagle with a friend who had told her about "the space upstairs". A deal was struck: Ms Hill, now aged 33, then found herself lifting five layers of carpet and lino, some of it staple- gunned to the floor, until she exposed her own magic boards.

Mr Eyre confessed to me that he had envisaged upstairs as a space for "undersold artists". Hardly surprising, since he initially demeaned his bare boards as "the middle class's idea of what is working class". That was the first of his underestimations of the power of the enchanted wood. The Eagle Gallery now holds up to ten painting, sculpture and print exhibitions a year and its seven limited-edition artists' books, under its Dinosaur imprint, have been bought by the V&A, the Tate Gallery Library, the Museum of London and the Yale Centre for British Art in the United States.

Scouts from London's weekly listings magazine Time Out gave the Eagle a quick once-over and decreed that the gallery did not merit mention. Ms Hill tackled them and her gallery is now listed not in the magazine's Alternative Spaces slot but in its more prestigious Commercial Spaces. "I had to work against a general prejudice about a gallery above a pub," she said. "People tended to assume it must be something pretty grotty, not a seriously curated space showing professional artists."

As for the trendy Mediterranean food downstairs, surely that was calculatedly targeted at new-rich Spartans? "Actually, no," says David Eyre. "I lived in Portuguese Mozambique between the ages of six and 19. The cooking there is what you might call `olive oil belt'".

His original concept was big-flavour pub food with "just a nod towards restaurateurism". Now the two partners find themselves serving 120 single- course covers in two hours, both at lunchtime and in the evening. There are no tablecloths, no waiters, no tipping. For a big main dish (order soup as well if you want to burst) with a couple of glasses of wine and coffee, the Eagle charges pounds 13-pounds 14 a head.

Ms Hill celebrated the pub-gallery symbiosis in a 40-page artists' book, The Eagle, in an edition of 100 selling for pounds 120 each. (There are 12 left). Six colour lithographs of the pub and its food together with black and white images, by artist Chloe Cheese, jostle with a handwritten text of recipes and tales of how the Eagle was hatched. It helped to put the place on the map.

There are recipes for osso bucco, leaf salads, slow-roast tomatoes, all thrown together like a kitchen scrap-book. In 200 years' time, what will collectors make of this strange, back-to-basics culture that thrived on foreign food - and how much will they pay for a copy of The Eagle?

Some of Eagle's "bookworks" record exhibitions there. The famous Curwen Studio - where Ms Hill worked for six years - printed a joint record by the abstract painter Basil Beattie and art writer Mel Gooding Beattie's 400-drawing installation at the Eagle. Art critics loved it.

During private views, the pub's door to the gallery stairs is left open in an attempt to foster the traditional rapport between alcohol and art and it is the pub-gallery ambience that lures local creatives to eat and drink. Ms Hill says: "The gallery does create a different atmosphere. It's a still place within the building".

Besides the 20 artists whose work is stocked by the gallery, there are eight who sell their paintings, sculpture, prints and bookworks exclusively through it - a small group typical of the creative collectives that are popping up in Farringdon. Ms Hill and her artists thrive on a back-to- basics virtue: mutual trust. Unlike the big galleries, there are no contracts, just 40 per cent commission - ten per cent less than most commercial galleries. Artists are free to sell from their own studios instead of the gallery but are trusted to report their sales to Ms Hill.

Zara Matthews, 36, makes prints of cell structures such as chromosomes. She says: "Emma has integrity. She does not follow fashion and never tells us what to do. She trusts us to develop in an interesting way - that is, to get on with it and come up with the goods".

All the artists represented by the Eagle have solid CVs - exhibitions, awards - again, typical of Farringdonians with job experience who have survived the recession by striking out on their own; and good news for collector-investors who want to avoid buying work by artists likely to disappear into the sunset.

Besides working at the Curwen, where she ended up as manager, Ms Hill has taught at Camberwell School of Art and was director's assistant at the Cygnet Press and at the Albemarle Gallery, now defunct. Having left it, she was "all at sea" by the time she discovered the Eagle.

With West End gallery rents at pounds 40,000-pounds 50,000 a year, even during the recession, it is hardly surprising that young Spartans should seek space in under-developed quarters such as Farringdon. Ms Hill says: "Both the Eagle businesses were set up in the recession by young people with little money but eight to ten years experience of working for others, who fell back upon what they knew". That seems to sum up life on the boards in Farringdon.

The Eagle Gallery, 159 Farringdon Road, EC1R 3AL (0171-833 2674), is open Thursday-Friday (11am-6pm) and Saturday-Sunday (11am-4pm).

Eagle Tavern (0171-837 1353).

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