His overalls spattered with all the colours of the spectrum, Gabriel Hartley is adding the finishing touches to a monumental abstract painting in preparation for a New York art show.
The 32-year-old artist’s immediate concern is whether his 4.8m long canvas will fit into the lift of the former Bermondsey biscuit factory in which he rents studio space.
But he has longer-term worries about the increasing difficulties London-based artists face in finding a suitable home for their activities, following the news that he and hundreds of other tenants in the building will be forced out to make way for a new property development.
“I love it here. It was disappointing to hear I’d have to move out,” he said. “It’s hard to find spaces like this … impossible really.”
As the capital’s property market powers ahead, artists are being pushed into outlying areas, fuelling concerns about the impact on London’s vibrant cultural scene.
The cavernous 142,000 sq ft building in which Mr Hartley – along with 389 other tenants – works is on a short-term lease to V22, an arts organisation that finds space for artists and exhibitions across London.
Artists have a long history of colonising the city’s derelict or underused districts: the slum areas of Chelsea in the 1920s; St Katherine’s Dock in the 1970s; and the former warehouses of Clerkenwell and Hoxton in the 1990s.
Industrial spaces gained in popularity for artists after the second world war, when works by abstract expressionists such as Jackson Pollock began to require larger spaces for their creation and display.
The vast south London factory has an illustrious record as a venue for contemporary art, hosting shows by artists such as Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and Jake and Dinos Chapman.
Phyllida Barlow, the influential sculptor who constructs large-scale installations from everyday materials, is using her studio there to create this year’s Tate Commission, a work that will take its place in the grand space of Tate Britain’s Duveen Galleries.
What’s happened in Hoxton took around 15-20 years. In Dalston it has taken seven years. In east and south Bermondsey it has taken three years
But its owner, Workspace Group, last year sold the building to Grosvenor Estates, owned by the Duke of Westminster, in a £51m deal to build 800 homes, as well as commercial space and community facilities.
Tara Cranswick, V22 director, said her organisation moved into the space in 2010 knowing that, like many affordable artists’ studios, it was not a permanent arrangement. But she said the end had come quicker than expected, in a trend that was accelerating across London.
“What’s happened in Hoxton took around 15-20 years. In Dalston it has taken seven years. In east and south Bermondsey it has taken three years,” she said.
As artists disperse into outer boroughs such as Waltham Forest, Greenwich and Bromley, the clustering effect that fuels creativity will be threatened, she added, and, with it, one of the factors behind London’s appeal as a global cultural hub.
Jonathan Harvey is chief executive of Acme, an affordable studio provider with 620 studios and a waiting list of 1,100 artists. Acme avoids the problem of insecure tenancies by owning its properties as a charitable housing association.
But Mr Harvey believes local authorities could take a more enlightened approach to planning regulations.
“Some councils could be more proactive. It’s a lack of imagination. It does matter because … one wants to maintain some of that cultural activity. It adds to the mix and makes for vibrant neighbourhoods.”
Workspace said its plans for the site, approved by Southwark Council, provide for more than 2,000 full-time employed jobs on site and 350,000 sq ft of employment space targeted at creative industries – with units ranging from 150 sq ft to 10,000 sq ft.
Southwark Council said 26 per cent of units at the Bermondsey site would be affordable housing.
London’s housing crisis – exacerbated by its population growth, currently projected at around 100,000 arrivals a year – means artists are likely to fall down the priority list when judged against the need for new homes.
Such concerns will be familiar to artists used to migration in their search for a place to work, but perhaps little consolation. Mr Harvey said: “Artists have always been the pioneers of regeneration – and its victims as well.”