Inside my art gallery home

hen Jemma Hickman launched the bo.lee gallery in Bath nine years ago, her choice of artists was intuitive. “I would ask myself, would I want to hang this piece in my own home?” she says. This proved to be a prescient principle as, having brought the business to London in 2012, she decided to look for a space that was a home and gallery in one.

This decision was partly down to the capital’s prohibitive rents, but also because of the benefits of displaying art in a domestic setting. “Galleries can feel quite sterile and intimidating, but a home feels more relaxed, plus it freed me up to travel to international art fairs,” says Hickman.

In 2015, she and her husband, Andy Stokes, who works in market research, bought this early Victorian end-of-terrace house, close to Peckham Rye, southeast London, because the adjoining former coach house (more recently used as a potter’s studio) made a great viewing space.

The dining room with a wooden top dining table with iron legs and chairs, a sideboard and sculptures
 Open house: the dining room with sculptures by Cathy Lewis and Laura Ellen Bacon. Photograph: James Balston for the Observer

The front doors to the house and gallery are side by side and lead into a U-shaped series of rooms. Visitors move from the most public area, the viewing space, through to the dining room, which serves as an extension of the gallery and is full of pictures and sculptures. The dining area opens on to the kitchen, which in turn leads back to the front of the house via the living room – a more private space where the couple’s own art collection is displayed.

This gradual journey from public to private is echoed by the interiors, which seem to intensify as you progress through the house. The white and minimal viewing room leads into the warm, neutral palette and raw, industrial style of the kitchen and dining areas, then comes the dark, inky blue of the living room, which is furnished with antiques and quirkier pieces. “We stamped our own personality on this area. It’s full of things from our travels and has the air of a Victorian cabinet of curiosities,” says Hickman.

A painting above a bed, and a bird cushion
 Night bird: a painting by Dominic Hills above the bed, and a bird cushion by Timorous Beasties. Photograph: James Balston for the Observer

Unsurprisingly, Hickman lets the art set the tone in each space. “My brain is set to think about the artwork before the interior. I always start by asking: ‘What will go on the wall?’ and that dictates the style of the room,” she explains. Hickman trained in fine art, but quickly found that she was more interested in other artists’ work. Having helped to launch a colleague’s gallery, she decided – aged just 25 – that it was time to go it alone.

She enjoys living with the art and re-hanging it regularly, and the couple relish the buzz at their private view evenings, where good friends mingle with clients, and the party often goes on beyond its appointed hour. “Collectors like to see what is in our own collection and we often end up spreading into the private rooms,” she says.

Her roster of artists and her interiors style share many similarities: both are diverse, mixing old and new, with an emphasis on narrative and a dash of the macabre. “I’m drawn to things that have history or a story attached to them and I’ve always been an outdoor person. As a child I collected dead beetles and butterflies and I still find beauty in taxidermy.”

Jemma Hickman and husband  Andy Stokes.
 House proud: Jemma Hickman and husband Andy Stokes. Photograph: James Balston for the Observer

Now Hickman is planning the next phase in bo.lee’s evolution, a stand-alone gallery space in Peckham – but not for the reasons you might expect. “It’s not about getting our house back to ourselves, but the gallery is growing and I need more space to show the work,” she explains.

“But I’ll include comfortable furniture and try to recreate the approachable vibe that we have here.” Hickman plans to take the welcoming atmosphere with her.

For more information, go to bo-lee.co.uk

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