Art in Matthews Yard: past, present, future

By - Monday 8th December, 2014

Matthews Yard’s Saif Bonar and Leoni Descartes talk to Bernadette Fallon

Matthews Yard.
Photo by John Gass, used with permission.

If you ask Saif Bonar, founder of Croydon’s Matthews Yard, whether he has achieved what he set out to do with his artistic plans for the venue, he will laugh. “We didn’t set out to do anything with art; there was no original concept,” he explains.

So, over three years later, the fact the café-bar/workspace/venue now has a dedicated gallery and features a rolling programme of monthly exhibitions is a pretty good achievement. Plus, the exhibitors at Matthews Yard enjoy the sort of high visibility and public attention that artists at a high-end London gallery might well envy.

And – like so much of Matthews Yard – it grew organically. In the early days Alice Cretney, an artist who went on to found local art co-operative TURF, originally used the space to display the work of local artists around the café. When Leoni Descartes joined the organization a few months after its opening, she began to develop a plan for using Matthews Yard as a regular exhibition space. After building works created a separate space, which was initially used just for storage, she saw the possibility of creating a dedicated gallery within the building.

Plenty of people pass through – and the art sells!

“I had zero budget but Saif was quite happy for me to go ahead and have a go if I thought I could make it work,” she laughs. And now, with a footfall of over a thousand people a week through this space, it certainly sounds like it has worked.

The crowds Matthews Yard draws for meet-ups, talks and gigs, to use the workspace and just as a buzzy spot to hang out and socialise, helps of course. As does the fact that Croydon Radio, with all its visiting guests, occupies one of the rooms on the far side of the gallery. So plenty of people pass through here – and the art sells!

“We don’t take a commission or any fees from the artists,” explains Leoni. “Basically we just give them the space to do what they like with. But we always get a lot of enquiries from people who want to buy the works.”

There is a selection panel which choose the artists who exhibit in the gallery but, as Leoni points out, they are much more open to looking at a wide range of artists, and not always established ones. “Maybe it might be a mum who likes to paint in her spare time,” she says. “Though of course the work exhibited has to meet a certain standard.”

Croydon Paintbox by Lis Watkins.
Image by Lis Watkins, used with permission.

Local artist Lis Watkins is currently showing in the space. Lis produces stunning watercolours, many of which have a strong Croydon theme. In Croydon Paintbox, shown here, all the colours have been inspired by, and named after, iconic Croydon features. The next Matthews Yard exhibition is a group show of twenty artists who, rather unusually, are not Croydon-based but work from studios in Covent Garden.

As Saif steps down as Chief Executive of Matthews Yard – converting it into a Community Interest Company, owned and operated by the community – and Leoni takes over the Chief Executive role, the plan is to extend the gallery space in 2015. Leoni also wants to develop the website to include more information on exhibitors and build up an archive of previously displayed works.

Exhibitions are currently planned up until March 2015, so if you’re in the Surrey Street area, make sure you call in and catch what’s going on. With Damien Hirst on show just up the road in the RISE Gallery, who knows – you might just discover another young Hirst in the making.

For more information, click here or just hang a turn off Surrey Street.

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Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette Fallon

Bernadette has been a journalist since the age of 7 when she devised, designed and launched ‘Fallon’s News’ – much to her family’s delight. Brought up in Ireland, she was born in Addiscombe where she now lives, though it took her several decades to find it again. She works as a journalist and broadcaster. Follow her at

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