Stuart Free: The neon laureate of north London

Stuart Free has made it his life's work to bring the capital's battered buildings back from the dead, capturing them in bright acrylics that speak directly to the nostalgia of those who knew them best: the locals who are his neighbours

Sunday 17 January 2010 01:00 GMT

When Stuart Free's mother Jane went into labour at St Andrew's Hospital in Billericay, midwives summoned his father David, who jumped on his Lambretta and set off for the maternity ward – at speed, and in a state of understandable distraction.

"By the time I was born," the painter says, "my dad was in a coma. On his way to the hospital he whacked a car and flew right over the bonnet. Splinters from his crash helmet penetrated his skull. He woke up two months later. For some time he didn't remember that he had a wife or a son. That is how I came into the world."

The artist doesn't mention whose fault the accident was. But however flagrantly David Free might have disregarded the Highway Code that day, you can't help feeling he would have driven with even more urgency had he known how extraordinarily gifted a figure his son would turn out to be.

Working in some of the least picturesque areas of north London, Stuart Free has made a brilliant career from highlighting the perverse elegance of urban decay, concentrating on crumbling shop fronts, graffiti-covered tower blocks and abandoned tea rooms.

Free, who is 38, is softly spoken and modest to the point of diffidence. His work is owned by Victoria Wood, and collected by north London neighbours including the comedian Sean Hughes, Gem Archer (formerly of Oasis), and the actor and director Simon Pegg, a long-time supporter. Some years ago Free was the subject of a feature in Time magazine. He says that domestic reports on his work have been restricted to papers such as the Hornsey & Crouch End Journal.

We meet at Frameworks Gallery in Crouch End, a couple of miles from Free's house in Wood Green. Frameworks' owner, Geoff Kaye, and his business partner Jason Waldren have maintained a permanent exhibition of their protégé's work for the past 11 years.

"When I first saw your pictures," I tell him, "things like your signature work, the façade of the disused Hornsey Road Baths and Laundry, I assumed you must have come here from Cuba or Haiti."

"That," Free says, "is because of the intensity of the colour. But it doesn't have so much to do with Cuba as with LSD; when I was young I used to do quite a bit of that. I took acid with my old man when I was about 15."

"Pardon?" "He did it because he was a very good father," says Free, whose middle name is Hendrix. "I came home and told him, 'Look, I've got this stuff.' He said: 'Listen, this is serious. You need to be careful. I'll take it with you.'"

For 15 years, Free has travelled around London photographing buildings, often forlorn small businesses, which betray every sign of imminent closure. He sketches a pencil outline with a precision he inherited from his father, who was an engineer, then applies high-grade acrylic paint, mixed with sharp sand, for texture. He finishes the painting with glaze and varnish. This process can take a month. The results are stunning. As rendered by Free, Walthamstow's greyhound track, now silent, closed and condemned, lives on, radiating its defiance like some weird, luminescent cathedral.

Stuart Free shows little interest in the kind of ruthless self-promotion some painters see as a defining part of their achievement. He has nothing in common with the better-known conceptual artists who have become the artistic establishment in the capital, some of whom have a world view that resembles someone peering down the wrong end of a telescope at a mirror trained on themselves. He occasionally stutters, wears what he feels like, and has "never had a grand plan".

"To me," he says, "success isn't about discussing my work on television. I was in the special-needs class at school. I was constantly told that I was 'a good lad who wouldn't come to much'. But I always thought that I could do something and my father encouraged me in that. He'd started at art college, but he had to leave and go into engineering to support me. When I was born, my mother was 16 and he was 21. Success to me is the fact that I have a lovely home and ' a beautiful wife [Kirsty Griffin, the textile artist]. I would like to think my work speaks directly to people. And that it's strongly connected to a sense of place; a sense of being local."

"The idea that you can produce work with universal resonance from a local area has never seemed to be a problem in America," I suggest. "In Britain, though, 'local' has become so dirty a word that even BBC News daren't use it. I don't know if it's a legacy of The League of Gentlemen, but at the end of the main television bulletin you hear them say: 'And now let's go to the news...'"

"...where you are. Right. But the way I would define success would be to have one of my prints in most houses in this area of north London."

"I know your styles aren't exactly similar, but I suppose LS Lowry must have felt a bit like that about Salford and Stockport. I remember an interview he did with Robert Robinson where he spoke in very much the way you're talking now. He had his day job as a rent collector [Free still does some picture framing] and he seemed less than usually preoccupied with money."

"The way that Lowry lived and worked is something I can relate to and appreciate; the idea that art is not about intellectualising the work – it's about the buildings, it's about the people you see around you, every day. If I was a cook, I wouldn't want to be a celebrity chef. I'm more concerned with the hands-on aspect of what I'm doing."

Free adds that he always enjoyed the work of the American realist Edward Hopper, one of his main influences. "I loved what he did with light, and that idea that you might scrutinise things you wouldn't normally look at. And his work isn't for young or old people; it's ageless. I'd like to think that a young child or a grandmother could like what I do."

"Yet the curious thing about you working here, in Crouch End or Kentish Town, is that – compared to what inspired Dali in Cadaques, or Hockney in California, or Edward Hopper on the coast of Maine – there is nothing visually encouraging about this area, is there? I mean, frankly, it's pretty boring."

"Well, it can be hard work and it is very grey. I go out and photograph these places at dawn or at sundown. That way you get interesting shadows and sharper light. You have to make a scene large; try to show it has something you can value, if it's still there, or regret, if it's gone."

"One of the fascinating things about your pictures is the way that – even though they're typically buildings or façades, with no people in them – they still carry a powerful emotional charge; I think because they somehow exude the personalities of the people who cherished them, or neglected them – or, in some cases, even trashed them."

"If I'm working on a commission – and I do about 12 a year – I'm there to help convey why you love a café or a venue, then try to bring out your memory of it. After I painted the Hornsey Road Baths and Laundry, I was approached by one customer who had been homeless. They'd done all his washing for him there when he was destitute. Eventually he got work, and he saved up and bought a copy of that picture. Another woman had been abused when she lived opposite that same building. She wanted a picture of the place as some kind of cathartic thing. I don't want all my customers to be rich. I'm interested in what are sometimes referred to as 'ordinary people'. What I would call 'proper people'. There are no ordinary people."

We continue this conversation next door to Frameworks, at Banners café in Crouch End, another place that displays several of his pictures, including one of Arsenal's old Highbury stadium. It's a scene whose nostalgic elegance is appreciated even by the team's enemies, if only because it's a reminder that the once-cherished home of England's loudest under-achievers isn't there any more.

"I'm not especially interested in football. A building has to have something about it. Not long ago, someone asked me to paint Arsenal's new Emirates stadium. I had to ask them, 'Have you looked at my work at all? I mean... maybe I can do it one day. If it's been trashed in a riot."

Stuart Free grew up in Wickford, Essex, between Billericay and Southend. When he was nine, his parents moved to Bournemouth. Gradually, he says, he was attracted to a more marginal life. "By the time I was 12, I was staying out all night. I knew people who were involved in what you'd call petty criminality – breaking and entering, that kind of thing. I got collared by the police a couple of times, and told to behave. When I was 18, my dad threw me out. He was right."

Free applied to study art at Manchester University. "I failed the interview, but one of the people on the committee liked my work so much that he actually phoned up Central St Martins, in London, and said: 'Look, there's this kid my colleagues have turned down, but I think he's fantastic.' I finished my graphics degree there in 1994."

"Were you already drawn to the same kinds of subject matter as you are now?"

"Yes, even then, although I was working more in charcoal. After college I moved to north London and I got a job in an art shop. Once I came here I just loved the landscape straight away. I can't really explain why. It was just something about all these derelict shops. I remember thinking, this place is so knackered that I love it."

In his 1979 collection of interviews Show People, the critic Kenneth Tynan suggests that there are some artists and performers destined never to achieve international fame, because the nature of their work is so closely identified with their own country. (It's an observation that, with hindsight, Tynan somewhat spoils in his next line: "OJ Simpson is one example: illustrious at home and nada abroad.")

In Free's case, I suggest, there's nothing to prevent him from replicating what he's done in London elsewhere in the world. "You visited the United States several times when you were young, didn't you?" "I went to America a lot in my twenties. I had grant money and I spent it on going there, mainly because I'm a big record collector. Soul, blues; I love that music so much. So I've visited the Midwest. I spent quite a bit of time in Chicago, and New York."

"Those last two towns, contrary to some people's images of them, have a far higher concentration of splendid decrepitude than London does."

"They do, and I found myself documenting those same things there: the battered shops, the run-down cinemas – all the things you see on the wrong side of town."

"I mention that because I have this suspicion that it's over there, in the United States, that you might find yourself working, one day. I've always had the feeling that your work will end up in international galleries, but I can especially imagine you becoming a household name in North America."

Free admits that he already has quite a few collectors in California, then hesitates. "The idea of that degree of attention frightens me a little. My work is low level. It's under the radar and I like to keep it like that. I want the work out there, not me. The other thing is that I am genuinely not interested in this primarily for making money. I would be much more interested in painting, say, the cinema or the chip shop you remember from your childhood. That's what I'm about. Celebrating your life rather than mine."

He pauses. "I have a beautiful life here. I have wonderful friends. Why would I want to mess it up?"

Prime among the things you would never question about Stuart Free are his talent and his integrity. That said, if there is one question relating to the next stage in his already extraordinary journey, it might be this: for how long will the local allegiance of this painter suppress the tendency of great art to migrate?

Stuart Free's work is exhibited at Frameworks, 17 Park Road, London N8 (;

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