John Reeve and the CLICK CLOCK gallery: an unlikely hero for the arts in Croydon


By - Monday 15th April, 2013

Liz Sheppard-Jones waxes lyrical about the good work being done by local entrepreneur John Reeve


John Reeve, founder of Croydon’s CLICK CLOCK art and photography gallery

In 1986 the Pet Shop Boys gave the world the following lyrics :

‘… just when you least expect it/Just what you least expect’. (‘Love Comes Quickly’, from their album Please).

John Reeve, silver entrepreneur, patron of the visual arts, and founder of the CLICK CLOCK art and photography gallery in Croydon Town Centre, is Croydon’s very own senior Pet Shop Boy and not at all what might have been expected. This piece is more than just a consideration of what he’s achieved: it’s a tribute to his work and an expression of gratitude, both collective and personal. But first, in order to understand what’s been happening at the Clocktower Café in Katharine Street, it’s important to take a quick look back.

Memory of the future

In March 2012, 11 months after pulling the plug on the David Lean Cinema, the three art exhibition spaces at the Clocktower in Katharine Street, the Croydon Summer Festival, and the Mela cultural festival, Croydon Council  bigged up Croydon’s cultural and arts scene in its bid (the fifth since 1972) for city status for Croydon.

Fairfeld Halls (from which a £1 million council operating grant was withdrawn in 2005), the Warehouse Theatre (two months after writing the bid document, Croydon Council reneged on the final instalment of a £30,000 grant, sending the theatre into administration) and a history steeped in music give [Croydon] a solid cultural foundation…  A wealth of facilities… provides a backbone to community living…and offers a huge boost to the culture and leisure offer that is available to local residents’. In a heartening conclusion, we learned that ‘Croydon places a huge priority on the quality of individual life

I try to avoid cynicism but it’s unclear how one pens such lines with one hand while the other takes a cudgel to these ‘cultural foundations’. Perhaps it’s hard to be a politician. Still, the truth of the words themselves is unarguable. An energetic cultural scene does indeed enrich all of our lives and many people in Croydon fear the effect of almost £650,000 worth of cuts to arts funding. We worry about the hollowing-out of our identity – that our borough could become an enormous, albeit one day prosperous, retail park on the southern fringe of London and nothing more: Croydon, icon of shopping.

To no-one’s surprise, and I suspect the council’s neither, the 2012 city status bid was unsuccessful. The London Borough of Croydon no longer has an active public arts and culture programme. (If the choice is between running poetry festivals and providing decent care for the elderly then that’s no choice at all, but a debate about priorities in prolonged recession badly needs to happen. But while tax revenue worth £5 billion is lost in the UK each year due to avoidance by businesses and corporations, austerity medicine is offered to us unsweetened and without alternative).

So in 2013’s icy economic and political climate, six out of seven members of Croydon Council’s Cultural Development Team have been fired. The Braithwaite Hall (formerly used as a venue for concerts, theatre and children’s shows) has been abandoned. The Warehouse Theatre stands derelict and the David Lean Cinema survives in exile thanks to the efforts of volunteers.

Art and photography might have gone the same way, with the closure of the three exhibition spaces in Katharine Street.  Instead, they found a champion. Enter John Reeve, (allegedly) retired founder and proprietor of the CLICK CLOCK Gallery.

Empty spaces mean blank faces

So what is a retired chartered surveyor doing running a gallery? A keen amateur photographer, John’s professional life was led as a chartered surveyor with 53 years of experience in the business in the south east of England. He ascribes the germ of the idea for the gallery to his surveying instincts which have given him a dislike of blank space and its deadening effect on the wider environment. The prospect of an artistic blank at the heart of Croydon troubled him.

John is someone to whom the prospect of retirement was not natural – the habit of work to do, a deadline to do it by, and seeing the difference that work makes to those around him were things he could not easily relinquish. His enthusiasm for the visual arts alerted him to the risk to Croydon’s cultural life posed by the closures in the town centre, and the knack of spotting an opportunity had clearly not been lost with his last salary slip.

Seeing the opportunity offered by turning one of Croydon’s most characterful cafés into a space for photography and art, John opened the CLICK CLOCK Gallery on September 2nd 2011, following negotiations with the proprietor of the Clocktower Café. No-one could have anticipated the extent of its success  and nineteen months later, 150 artists and photographers have displayed their work and over 2,000 items have been put on display. Not all have been for sale, but the CLICK CLOCK Gallery averages ten sales per month.

A vital part of Croydon’s economy

Another benefit of the gallery’s opening has been improved footfall for the Clocktower Café and also for Croydon Central Library. There had been concern about the impact of cuts and closures in Katharine Street and these benefits are one example of how the artistic and cultural life of a place underpins its economy.

The arts should not be regarded as add-ons or luxuries, expendable in hard times, the withdrawal of which upsets only a minority and harms no-one. The beneficial economic aspect of the CLICK CLOCK resonates strongly for John Reeve and it was this in particular which motivated me to nominate him for the award of Croydon Guardian Arts Champion 2012.

Connecting Croydon with the London art scene

Many of its exhibitors have of course been from Croydon and the CLICK CLOCK is a showcase for local talent, but John seeks not only to promote local work but to plug Croydon into the wider arts scenes of London and the entire nation. CLICK CLOCK is listed as a venue on spoonfed.co.uk, the lively London arts and events website.  It therefore draws visitors to the area, and as a result of this its Christmas exhibition was promoted by the Croydon Business Improvement District as part of the Town Centre Festival in both 2011 and 2012.

The Christmas period is of course the key to retail success and a time when everyone trading in Croydon works hard to draw in customers and make the sales that create jobs and help the local economy to thrive. The part played by CLICK CLOCK gives John great satisfaction.

Nicky Nicholls : an artist for modern Croydon

It’s challenging to pick out highlights among so many during the last year and a half, but one stands head and shoulders above the others – the championing by John Reeve of the paintings of Nicky Nicholls.

Nicky Nicholls is a disabled artist who has spent her life in Croydon. A long-term resident of Addiscombe, her ability to express herself creatively has been hindered by a long battle with health problems. However, during the last few years Nicky has achieved artistic recognition and has been commissioned by the Croydon Business Improvement District to produce a series of Croydon postcards. It is intended that one of her works will be produced as a Croydon Christmas card and on sale in Croydon Visitor Centre at the end of this year.

Nicky Nicholls’ style as a painter can be compared to that of LS Lowry, the artist who celebrated the fabric of ordinary industrial life and the workplaces of the north of England in the middle part of the twentieth century. The superficial simplicity of Lowry’s work has led him to be described as naïve or untutored, but closer examination reveals both subtlety and emotional depth. Like his, Nicky Nicholls’s paintings have a sophistication which a first glance can miss.

Her world is both friendly and recognisable (warmly depicting local scenes and people known to her) but also shadowy and frightening, filled with blank, unknowable faces and a sense of alienation. Anyone who has struggled with the sense of being an outsider, excluded and lost in a familiar place without understanding why, will respond to Nicky’s work. It is for this reason that I consider her an artist for modern Croydon.

Surrey Street Market by Nicky Nicholls

Happiness is an option

It’s thanks to people like John Reeve, just one among Croydon’s many creatives, that our borough has the chance of an exciting future for all the difficulties it faces. I can think of no more optimistic, life-affirming act than to found an art and photography gallery. In doing so (whether he realises it or not) John lives out the uplifting words of Noam Chomsky and makes the world not only better, but also more likely to continue becoming so:

“Optimism is a strategy for making a better future. Because unless you believe that the future can be better, you are unlikely to step up and take responsibility for making it so”.  Thanks, John.

Want to take part in what’s happening at the CLICK CLOCK? From now until April 23rd you can vote for winners in the ‘Living World’ photography competition, sponsored by the Rotary Club of South Croydon, in one of two categories, under and over 17.  The entries are on display in the gallery in Katharine Street Croydon (right next to the Central Library) and voting slips are available there. The winner will be announced at the Croydon Mayor’s Awards Ceremony on 23rd April.

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Liz Sheppard-Jones

Writer and editor. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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  • http://twitter.com/greencroydon Andrew Dickinson

    Good article Liz and John is a top bloke and a Croydon hero. He would be mildly embarrassed by such praise but it’s deserved.He’s a great example of the talent,experience and positive attitude that we have in the borough that comes to the fore every now and again.

  • Philip George Harfleet

    Excellent and informative article. I no longer live in Croydon but it is my home town and so many memories live in my mind.

    Miss Nicky Nicholls’ artistic talent was previously unknown to me therefore I am grateful to have seen her Surrey Street painting via this article. What a revelation! This picture is both primitive and modern. I just LOVE it.
    The postcard idea is wonderful and I’d certainly want to own whatever cards are produced in due course. I’d also like to see a gallery (online) of Miss Nicholls’ work. I do wish her well, and huge success in life and art.

  • http://www.facebook.com/liz.sheppardjones Liz Sheppard-Jones

    Really delighted with your feedback, Philip George Harfleet. I very much agree about the work of Nicky Nicholls and will be doing as much as possible to ensure that she becomes better known. Her Croydon Christmas card design is also very powerful and I am hopeful that we can produce and sell it in Croydon Town Centre for Christmas 2013. I will ensure that Ms Nicholl’s attention is drawn to your comments.

    • Philip George Harfleet

      Thank you. I searched FB & Twitter but found no trace, sad to say.