Shopping: Where there's a Will's there's a way

Want to buy some art but don't want to buy into the art world? Rosie Millard has the answer

Modern British art is very desirable and groovy at the moment. From Minneapolis to Venice, the international arts establishment is falling over itself with enthusiasm to exhibit Brit creativity, whether involving installations with fried eggs, large pictures of human excreta, or anything floating in formaldehyde. A brief flick through Blimey!, Matthew Collings's paperback guide to the BritPack (and this month's coffee-table must-have), reveals the extent of the market's current heady success.

But for those who wish to take a little bit of our native success home with them, it's a bit more tricky. Collings's book is very enthusiastic, but it's very in. Once you've figured out who all these hip people are, and where you can buy their work, you have another problem. I mean, could you really live with, say, Abigail Lane's "life-size hyper-realistic sculpture of Angus Fairhurst lying naked on the floor except for an anorak?" For those who have grown out of Athena, but aren't quite ready to get to grips with a Jake and Dinos Chapman phallus-headed mannequin in their living room, salvation is at hand.

Will's Art Warehouse is down a small alley in the striped-shirt wearing, Pimm's- quaffing arena of Parsons Green, south London. It's been going for about six months and is the invention of Will Ramsay, 28, who himself was inspired by the man who invented B&Q. "I heard about this place he'd set up in Eastleigh which sold contemporary art in a very approachable way. I began to wonder if there was a gap in the market to do the same thing in London."

And he discovered there was. Will investigated the inner sancta where the BritPack dealer reigns supreme - Cork Street, Fitzrovia, Hoxton, Hackney. "I deliberately dressed down. I went to all the modern art galleries, to see how I was treated. And I was ignored. No-one tried to help me. The whole scene was for people in smart suits with loft conversions."

Will's Art Warehouse, by contrast, is built in a converted motorbike garage, and is for people who, according to Will, "aren't arty types, don't have a huge amount of money, but like the idea of having some contemporary art around. They don't want something handed down from their granny - but also they don't want a video installation groaning away in the corner of their living-room. People know about style, and they want to be fashionable. They like contemporary furniture, and aren't frightened to go into Heal's or the Conran Shop to buy it. But they're frightened to buy art."

Art at Will's costs from pounds 100 to pounds 2,000. Everything is framed up; you simply lift it off the wall and cart it away. Or you can wait until the end of the month, when the whole display in the gallery is changed. The warehouse is equipped with eight moveable screens; the screens and the vast wall space are hung with 150 to 200 pictures each month, about six times as many as a conventional Mayfair gallery.

Of course, its location is a godsend. A suburban haven packed with fairly affluent first-time buyers all boasting nice empty hanging space in their pine kitchens, Parson's Green is just the sort of place where people might quite like to buy middle-of-the-road contemporary art. And it's exactly the right spot for Will, himself hardly a product of the art school mafia.

"I went to Eton," he says. "And then I read geography at university." He stretches out one velveteen-clad leg and grins at me with rather an alarmingly wide smile. Does a CV come any more unhip than that? I'm thinking. "And then I was in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards. Commanding tanks." An ex-army officer-cum-art dealer? "Captain, actually. When I was at university, I did question the sense of going into the Army, but I was being sponsored by the Guards and was committed for five years after I graduated. So I thought I might as well do that before setting up as an art dealer. It is odd to start off from such an uncommercial and completely uncreative environment as the Army, but I've always loved art.

"My idea was to be a bit like Oddbins, because I think art is rather like wine," says Will. "Tastes have developed in wine. People don't want to just swill beer anymore. Whereas the merchants in St James's cater for people with cellars, Oddbins deals with people who just want a nice bottle of red. I know nothing about wine, yet I can go in there and they have staff who are friendly and tell you what's good. Hello," says Will, in a friendly sort of way, to two girls who have walked in.

"I mean," he continues, "art and wine are subjects people feel they should know about. But you don't want to ask, in case you're made a fool of. In some London galleries you dread asking anything about a painting in case the girl behind the desk says `Don't you think it's reminiscent of Matisse?'. And you haven't a clue who Matisse is."

To this end Will has introduced crib sheets, stuck on the wall alongside the paintings. It's a clever idea. They give the artists' age, history and a creative statement explaining the thinking behind the work. "So you can talk knowledgeably about your purchase at dinner parties," says Will helpfully. There are also pamphlets on artistic techniques by the till, explaining what things like acrylic paint are. They're not for the typical Matthew Collings reader, admittedly, but the service provides a fairly useful novice's guide all the same.

This month's exhibition is nothing if not eclectic; there's abstract work, a healthy dose of figurative stuff, plus landscapes and prints, and nothing too big for a domestic wall. Some of the work looks a mite desperate; but by the same token, I'd be quite happy to walk away with a few of the paintings on show. And with 200 works on offer, there's a wide scope and an extremely democratic price range. The artists themselves are selected each month by Will's curator Ian Harris; none of them is "owned" by the gallery. If the work isn't sold, it's returned.

Will has big plans to expand. "We're covering the overheads here at the moment, but after this one bottoms out financially, I'd like to think about opening another, possibly in Leeds, or Manchester. Or Glasgow. A large city with groovy people in it."

When I get home I speak to an artist I know who is part of the New British Art scene, and ask him what he thinks of Will's Art Warehouse. "My God," he says. "I've heard of this man. But I wouldn't be seen dead putting my work in there." It was just what I imagine Will would like to hear.

Will's Art Warehouse, Unit 3, Heathman's Road, London SW6 (0171-371 8787). Open 7 days a week: weekdays 10.30am-8pm, weekends 10.30am-6pm.

Rosie Millard is the BBC's Arts Correspondent

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