This is the seventh in our series in which writers say what London has meant to them. William is a painter, and was the principal art critic of the ‘Financial Times’ from 1978-2004.

I’ve never really felt myself to be a Londoner, to the endless irritation of my wife, who was born in Sutton, and of our three daughters, each of whom was born in St Thomas’s to the chimes of Big Ben across the river. When I first came to London as a student some fifty-five years ago, I never imagined it would be for the rest of my life, and it was only the luck of the draw in the jobs we got on our leaving art school that kept my wife and me here. It could as well have been Cornwall, or Northumberland, or wherever. But, had that been so, our lives would have been so very different, and I am ever grateful to London for that.

So, My London? It’s quite a question. I’m not sure I know what London is, let alone where it is, or which mine might be. There are so many Londons, and not just of place, but of work and pleasure and social life, and of fond memory too. Of this last, my earliest is of a shopping trip with my mother just after the War, and getting lost, though quite unaware I was, by straying curious and alone onto the roof, which I remember as a sort of garden, of Barker’s in Kensington, to the energetic agitation of sundry staff, and of my mother most of all.

But first, perhaps, I should make clear what My London most definitely is not? Of the East End I have almost no experience, other than of passing through, which goes for the South East too. Anywhere beyond Dulwich remains for the most part mysterious and unexplored, ventured into only by occasional invitation from family or friends, to Peckham or Greenwich, perhaps, or, in my still not so distant past, to play cricket or hockey at Bromley, Beckenham or Blackheath. And the Far South? Croydon? Norwood? Sydenham? Penge? Not really – let’s not go there. Well, the West then? Hmmm: Hammersmith, Chiswick, Shepherd’s Bush, Acton, Ealing – rather like the East End, really, largely unvisited and unknown.

And the North? All I shall say is that, having lived all but the first fortnight of my life south of the Thames, I rather feel that the North of England begins somewhere not far beyond the Euston Road – Islington possibly, or Camden Town, or exotic Maida Vale, Kilburn most certainly. I remember once being severely taken to task by an old friend, in those days rooted as she was in Hampstead, for having written of an exhibition at the Camden Arts Centre, half way to Birmingham up the Finchley Road, as being ‘well worth the trek.’

For me it is only the South West, in that broad swathe from the West End out to Fulham and from Brixton round to Richmond, that I can fairly claim as familiar territory. But do the suburbs count anyway? The answer can only be that of course they do, for London has always been a city of suburbs, from its early embrace of Westminster and Southwark, moving ever out and on. The only caveat to enter is, of course, that there are suburbs and suburbs,with some decidedly more sub than others.

I had come to Wimbledon all those years ago to study theatre design at the art school there, though I switched to painting later on. Is Wimbledon London? With a fellow student, still a friend, I shared a rather comfortable flat in Prince’s Road, just off the Broadway and close to the station. It was a good time, marked by a perhaps over-familiarity with the local pubs, from The Leather Bottle near the Art School to the Hand in Hand, the King of Denmark, The Swan and the Fox and Grapes up in the Village and across the Common. The feeling I had, though, was that to be in Wimbledon was to be of London, but not exactly in it. With the Underground and the Railway to hand it was all so close – the museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres, the other art schools – but it was also so easy to get back, and so get away.

The move more properly into London came with marriage looming and the attendant need to find somewhere to live that could serve us both. Clare was teaching at a school in Tooting, I at one in Windsor. A friend from art school alerted us to a vacant flat near him in Clapham, so, with the peculiar advantages of the Northern Line and Clapham Junction respectively persuasive, Clapham it was. We were to stay for almost exactly forty-two years, first in that flat in the Old Town, then in our first house just round the corner, and finally in another off the Southside, half-way across the Common.

The virtues of Clapham would soon make themselves apparent, but it was, even so, a very different place in those days: a bit dodgy, or edgy as we must learn to say nowadays. I remember taking possession of those two empty upper floors (lavatory inside the ground-floor porch of the garden door) one dark evening late in January 1965. Having let ourselves in and put on some lights, my brother-in-law and I came down to find a police car parked across the front of my ancient Beetle. ‘Is this your car, Sir?’ ‘Yes, Officer.’ ‘And may I ask you what your are doing?’ Once it became clear that we were taking stuff in rather than out, the mood eased somewhat. ‘May I give you a word of advice, Sir?’ ‘Yes, of course Officer.’ ‘I wouldn’t leave my car open like this, Sir, nor my front door open like that. Not around here, Sir. Not at this time of night.’ ‘Oh really, Officer, why is that?’ ‘Lot’s of KCs around here, Sir, lot’s of KCs.’ ‘KCs, Officer?’ ‘Known criminals, Sir, known criminals.’ Such was my introduction to Grafton Square, SW4.

And dodgy it was. Venn Street and the streets off it near the Underground were notoriously professional in their reputation, and Clapham Manor and Stonhouse Streets by no means above reproach. Our particular stuccoed terrace was ear-marked for demolition, to allow the school behind to expand, though nothing ever came of that. The Square itself was multi-occupied and multi-ethnic – Irish, Chinese, Maltese, West Indian. Our downstairs neighbours, a family a few doors away, and an old lady in the big house on the corner were at first the only English residents we knew.

That of course was soon to change, and many friends whom we made in those first few years remain close. Were we then the gentrifiers, part of the process? I suppose now we were, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. For Clapham itself was remarkably slow to catch up in terms of its shops and services. Even as late as the eighties, a wonderful Italian delicatessen came to rest briefly at the top of the High Street, only soon to give up hope and disappear. For us in the sixties, the nearest supermarket was the small Sainsbury’s all of ten minutes away on the King’s Road, but then Chelsea was rather habit-forming in those days, and easily adopted as part of our patch, so no complaints on that score. But you were very lucky to get a taxi to take you back across the River, even from Sloane Square. ‘Sorry mate: too far, well beyond our limit.’ I measured it on the map, and found that from Grafton Square to Victoria Station was, as it still is, all of a mile and half as by crow.

But that is the point: Clapham, and so much of South London with it, was too good a secret to stay secret for long. The problem lay only with the River in between, or rather with the perception of it as running straight from West to East. And, with Clapham sitting as it does at the hub of the great loop that brings it in as close to the City, Westminster and the West End as it is to Chelsea, that misperception was what kept it so cheap and convenient for so long and now, since the penny dropped long ago, makes it so expensively convenient now.

We moved from the Old Town just across the Common to Elms Road, and to what in estate-agent speak is now Abbeville Village, in 1981, and stayed there for the next twenty-six years. It too has changed utterly. When we moved, there were two butchers, a fishmonger, a baker, a chip shop, a cobbler, an Italian restaurant, and a Greek, and the admirable Treohan’s corner shop, a Post Office and Davisons, that excellent family-chain Off-Licence, all now gone. Instead, the estate agents are there, four at the last count, and a mini-Sainsbury’s too, in a run of shops barely seventy yards long. The excellent cheese shop arrived well before we left: the very smart butcher is very new.

But we were happy in Clapham. It is where our children grew up. Our bank, doctor and dentist are still there, and where I get my eyes tested, and my shoes mended. I still feel rather proprietorial about it, most especially so when the people of parts of Wandsworth, Battersea and Balham, over at the Junction and the far side of the Common, arrogate the name to themselves.

We moved across the parish boundary into Brixton, to another, smaller Square a longish cricket ball throw from the station, not quite so far from Tesco, to find a place as edgy now as Clapham was those forty-nine years ago, and no less agreeable. We are still within walking distance of where ever we were in Clapham, and of all our friends who are still there. The magic carpet of the Victoria Line is beyond price, Brixton Market beyond description.

So what or where is the London of my professional life? My painting has always been done in my studio at home, so London hardly comes into it. And what teaching I have ever done in London has always been occasional, as visitor, locum or examiner. I changed my full-time job at Windsor after three years for two days a week at Colchester art school, so the change of journey out and back made Clapham no less convenient. It was only at the end of the 60s, when my parallel career as an art critic began, that I first came fully to realise that My London was also where I worked.

London’s Art World was far smaller then than it is now, highly sociable and already familiar enough to me through the freemasonry of art school contacts and friends’ private views. One kept up with the shows, and had a very good time in the process. Only half aware that one was doing so, one became a regular. Even as a student, it was borne in on me that it was a world one moved into by, well, moving into. The apparently-closed door would almost always open, if one but dared, with just a push.

It was that little universe bounded by King Street to the South, Brook Street to the North, Regent’s Street to the East and Davies Street to the West, with its heart and lungs in Cork Street, Bond Street and St James’s. Already there were indications of the diaspora to come, with a handful of galleries in Chelsea, Knightsbridge and Belgravia, the Lisson in Marylebone, Annely Juda off Charlotte Street and Angela Flowers setting up shop in Soho, but even Robert Fraser up near Selfridges had always seemed just a little too far away. For the British Museum, the Tate and the Whitechapel, the Serpentine and the V&A, allowance would, of course, always be made. London’s art world, I know I know, has spread far and wide since then, and there have been times when I’ve tried, goodness I’ve tried: but that new, extended Art London is not mine.

And though I wrote for the Financial Times for thirty years, I never felt Fleet Street and the City to be mine either. I came to know and even like it well enough, and still mourn the commercial and architectural rape of Cheapside, but I was always there as a bird of passage. I came and went, delivered copy once or twice a week in the old days, often out of hours, and seldom stayed more than an hour or so, if that. With the coming of the web, it became hardly necessary to go in at all.

No: my working, writing, Art London was, and is, that old West End world of exhibitions, private views, a sausage on a stick and a glass of wine, and of gossip, gossip, and the careful wobble home. And that London did find its natural social extension, both to the West and just a step east. Chelsea, as I say, has always been part of my London, if not quite South of the River, at least on it: not South London in spirit, exactly, but certainly Southerly. And what with the siren call of Sean Tracey’s still-lamented Queen’s Elm, long since closed, and from there the inevitable transit 100 yards down the road to the irrepressible, unrepentant, Chelsea Arts Club, the bond could only grow stronger. And I really should get to the London Sketch Club more often than I do.

So too with Soho and Covent Garden. The Club, like the Pub, is a peculiarly English gift to the world, though much misunderstood and travestied abroad, and Clubs, major, minor and sporting (hockey with Richmond: cricket with Lord Gnome), have always been important to me. The Colony Room has gone, not so much irreplaceable as unreproducable. A small Literary club I belong to is a God-sent haven. The Garrick needs neither justification nor excuse. I had better say no more.


Dearest reader! Our newsletter!

Sign up to our newsletter for the latest content, freebies, news and competition updates, right to your inbox. From the oldest literary periodical in the UK.

You can unsubscribe any time by clicking the link in the footer of any email you receive from us, or directly on Find our privacy policies and terms of use at the bottom of our website.