Even as a child, supermarkets heir Alex Sainsbury, 46, was surrounded by fabulous things. His wealthy family collected art — his father funded the £50 million Sainsbury Wing at the National Gallery — so it’s not surprising that Alex grew up wanting an art gallery of his own.
After two decades working in the contemporary art world, in 2009 he founded Raven Row in an 18th-century Grade I-listed building in Spitalfields. With the help of Bloomsbury-based 6A architects, he spent four years restoring the building as a non-profit contemporary art exhibition centre, renowned for its original programming.
“The hope,” he says, “is that it will add to the London art scene in the same way that the Whitechapel or the South London Gallery has.”
Where I live
I live close to King’s Road. I grew up there and have memories of it as a child, as I tried to navigate the Seventies scene; being sworn at by punks was pretty exciting. I’m very lucky, very privileged, because I had the opportunity to build my own home in Tite Street, down by the Embankment, quite close to the river. It has been a privilege to build two architectural projects in London — a private house and this gallery, both with young British architects, 6a.
I looked for a site everywhere for five years. It wasn’t just that I wanted to live in Chelsea, I was eager to find somewhere in Clerkenwell but never managed. It was taken over by the professional loft developers in those days. I was working for [the architect] Tony Fretton at the time and I showed him a few places that were makeshift and quite difficult.
And he said: “No, no.” He wanted me to be ambitious, which I am so grateful for, because the site I have now is very, very wonderful and living on the river itself is fantastic. 6a are modernists but the house is near where Whistler and Wilde lived, so we keyed into that history, making a case for English Heritage.
I was in my twenties when I moved in and unmarried, and I tried to imagine what it might be like to live in a married house — which I failed to do exactly. So now it is an adapted batchelor pad. I like warm colours, which is very English. I think it’s our miserable weather that drives us to warm interiors. I work with a really wonderful house painter, Richard Clark, who is out of the art world but mixes his own paints. So we’ve got pinks and yellows and golds and silvers as well as textured ivory-whites like a plaster wall finish.
For Raven Row I also worked with Patrick Baty of Papers and Paints who have brilliant paint mixes, especially one called Quiet White, the best white I have ever come across. Good paint is the answer. It doesn’t have to be expensive, you can go down to Leyland and get it done. I remember an extraordinary green wall they mixed for a show I hosted in the early days .
Light and flow — and deciding what works
As an art movement minimalism is unbelievably important, but as an architectural style it’s bombastic and overdemonstrative, so it doesn’t actually work. I prefer soft edges and texture in the form of rugs and beautiful woods, which the early Miesian modernists were keen on as well. And light, flowing curtains, but not these crazy, very heavy, traditional English curtains which I find too much.
The Bold Tendencies sculpture show and Frank’s bar that Hannah Barry organises on the multi-storey car park roof in Peckham every summer.
I’m not crazy about the white stucco of west London, I prefer east London. But I love the tower of Christ Church right round where I live — surely one of the greatest pieces of architecture in London — and the Buddhist temple in Battersea Park, one of the last architectural commissions of the GLC.
In terms of contemporary design, going into the Museum of Childhood always gives me a huge kick; Caruso St John’s front there is brilliant. And I love what they’ve done to Tate Britain.
Most Coveted Design Object
Furniture, and of course it is fantasy stuff because I don’t own it. A cabinet by Italian designer Martino Gamper, who had a show at the Serpentine recently, would be a fantastic thing.
Chisenhale Gallery, run brilliantly by Polly Staple. Their brief seems to be to show most interesting, manageable, youngish artists. A favourite commercial gallery is Old Street’s Cabinet Gallery. They are about to open another space in the old Pleasure Gardens at Vauxhall.
My Dream home
My orientation is more east than west, so I suppose it would be a two-storey house with a roof garden in Clerkenwell designed by Tony Fretton or 6a.
I’m going to be very traditional and say my favourite restaurant is La Famiglia in World’s End, an old Tuscan trattoria from the days of Swinging London. On Sunday night there’s nothing better than repairing there. It is pricey but hugely enjoyable. I like St John tremendously, of course, which is very much the darling of the art world, and Moro which my cousin Mark co-founded with the Clarks.
I love watches. I lived in the Barbican for a while and I hugely enjoyed going to the little yellow hole-in-the-wall place on Clerkenwell Road, run by this committed watch enthusiast called John. It’s a fascinating place because it’s got all the old equipment for mending and repairing, as well as a fantastic collection of stuff. He has a lot of Omega watches, which are wonderful things.
It’s very child-centred so I’m bicycling round Battersea Park with them. We go to lots of children’s theatre such as the Polka, Unicorn and the Puppet Theatre in Little Venice. There’s a wonderful children’s zoo in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. We definitely keep our kids away from technology. At five and three, they will come to it soon enough.
I don’t want to come across as a grumpy middle-aged man, but it is difficult not to be upset about property prices. It has definitely affected artists and all cultural workers.
Anything other than being a banker precludes living within Zones 1 to 4 really. And artists rely on communities for cohesion and conversations — it’s a lonely business in the studio. I think art and cultural production in London is genuinely under threat.
Raven Row, 56 Artillery Lane, Spitalfields, E1, is open Wednesday to Sunday, 11am to 6pm. Admission is free. Visit www.ravenrow.org.