Set in the historic centre of Tunbridge Wells, Gray-Webster Fine Art specialises in exhibiting the work of the very best of established modern British artists. Owners Simon Webster and Jonathan Gray tell Fred Latty why the gallery is continuing to put the quality of the work first
TELL US THE BACKGROUND OF GRAY-WEBSTER
Jonathan: I’d been in the city and was coming up to retirement. I was looking for something to do and had got to know Simon over quite a long time.
Simon: I have another gallery that I’ve run for over 30 years. Jonathan was a friend and client of that gallery, and he approached me about going into business in Tunbridge Wells.
WHY SET UP IN THE TOWN?
Jonathan: It was on the list of places we might go to, and when we contacted commercial agents, this was the first property they offered us, so we came and had a look at it at the beginning of 2013. It was an antique shop, but it had quite a good space and we got a good deal.
WHERE DID IT GO FROM THERE?
Jonathan: The more we came back, the more we realised that Tunbridge Wells was perfect in many ways. We did a major refurbishment on it and opened in November 2013. It worked right from the start and we now have regular clients coming back again and again.
DOES THE GALLERY WORK WITH LOCAL ARTISTS?
Simon: It’s not a local artists’ type of thing. We’re quite niche because we’re not stepping on any galleries’ toes that are already here or have come in subsequently. What we do is very different from everybody else.
WOULD YOU SAY YOU’RE QUITE PARTICULAR ABOUT THE PAINTINGS YOU SELL?
Simon: The main thrust of any business like this is the quality and the type of painting you’re selling, and if you dip from that quality, you go down a slippery slope. I’m not prepared to do that, because it’s better to stick out with what you’re going to do.
HOW DO YOU COMPETE WITH LONDON GALLERIES?
Simon: We have to be quite careful on pricing. In the marketplace, we’re very competitively placed against all the major London galleries, so people do come from London to here because they know they’re not going to be paying the prices they do for the same artists.
Jonathan: Almost exactly the same pictures in a London gallery will be priced at almost a third or 40% more. They’ve got the rent problems that we don’t have, so we’re offering London quality pictures by very well-established names in Tunbridge Wells.
WHAT ARE SOME OF THE KEY TRENDS RIGHT NOW?
Simon: The taste at the moment is very much for pictures that have a statement about them. People aren’t necessarily looking for the subtlety of a watercolour; they want something that’s much more immediate. It’s a great shame, because watercolour painting is actually much more difficult to produce than an oil colour, but the taste is against them. Having said that, gouache, which is the ‘poster paint’, for want of a better term, is a dense, water-based medium that’s attractive because you can get strong colour and work on a very large scale. The trouble with watercolour is that you can’t work on a terribly large scale, because it dries too quickly.
Jonathan: Like everything in our lives, it’s all fashion-related and we have waves of fashion, so you have to be very sensitive to that. We have a very broad cross-section of pictures and try and cover as many different tastes as we can. Simon: You can’t pre-judge people’s tastes; you just get led by them, and that’s what a good gallery does. If you have a client who’s pulling you in a certain direction, you have to respond to that request.
IS IT A CASE OF CLIENTS KNOWING WHAT THEY WANT WHEN THEY COME IN?
Simon: They like to come in with the certainty that, if they do see something they like, it’s of a sufficient quality to be of interest. Quality is vital and we’re not dictated to by the artists – we’re very much related to the marketplace and what we perceive as the true worth of paintings. People are very price-sensitive and much more aware. The internet has opened up the whole world, which is a good thing in many ways, because it makes clients much more educated.
HAS THE RECESSION HAD ANYTHING TO DO WITH THAT?
Simon: The recession has had quite the reverse effect on the art market. People are floundering to know what to do with their money, so the art market is generally still in full flood and ‘anti-recession’.
ARE THERE MANY INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITIES?
Jonathan: I would never want to sell a painting as a pure investment. I’m not an investment manager, and there are three reasons in my mind to buy a picture: you can afford it, you love it and you’ve got somewhere on the wall where you can put it. If you’re fortunate enough, you might be able to buy something that fits those three categories and also goes up in value.
Simon: On the other side of the coin, if you’re buying a quality, established artist with a proven track record, that establishes a benchmark for value. If that moves up, it tends to mean that the picture you buy one year has shown you an investment of sorts in five years’ time.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR PRICING STRUCTURES?
Simon: We don’t have a set price, but with regard to the type of stock, it can vary from a bottom price of about £250, but most of our pictures go for £1,500 to £3,000 or £4,000, which isn’t extravagant and a comfortable area for people to be in. If you’re buying something at that sort of level, you’re buying something of quality, with a proven track record and by an artist who’s established and who the market likes. That’s the way this business works, and I think people are very well aware of that. People are quite honed in to pricing structures, and if they’re not, they can soon make themselves so. You’re dealing with quite a sophisticated client base.
DO YOU TEND TO THEME YOUR EXHIBITIONS?
Simon: Because the exhibitions are always mixed, they’re not based on one or two particular artists, so it’s a totally mixed exhibition each time. If you theme an exhibition and have a client who doesn’t like it, then you’re stuck, so it tends not to be so channelled. What people like to see is a great variety.
IN WHAT WAYS DO YOU ENSURE THE GALLERY REMAINS PROFITABLE?
Simon: You have to look after your clients and make sure they’re happy; most galleries rely on return business, so you have to establish a relationship. It’s very important to have that personal contact, because selling these days can be rather perfunctory. When people come in here, the idea is that it’s a pleasurable activity, because you’re buying something that’s a luxury product and that you’re going to have to live with for many years, so the whole thing needs to be appropriate with that.
ANY PLANS COMING UP?
Simon: We’re kicking around the idea of doing objects of virtue and novelty antique silver. We’ve had one or two pieces in the gallery, and there has been an uptake for them. It’s an idea we’ve had that we might add that element to the business, because we’ve got the space to do it, and when people are buying paintings – particularly when they’re collecting – they also tend to have interests in other areas as well.
FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES FOR THE FUTURE?
Jonathan: Our list of people who come and see us has grown considerably over the past two years, so one of the things we really want to do is continue growing the amount of people who come here. That’s really important for us, and the challenge is to get good pictures of a high quality, at a price that’s right for people.
Simon: Galleries take a very long time to establish. We’ve done very well and have a lot of return business and clients, but running a gallery is a long, slow process and not a ‘flash in the pan’ business. From the point of view of trust and client relationships, the longer you’re there, the better people like it, because you become an established factor in the town. Longevity in one position is important for a business and a good thing. If we can keep developing, keep the identity and keep our main purpose going and ethos in place, then people will respond.
Gray-Webster Gallery is open Wednesday to Saturday, 10am to 1pm and 2pm to 4pm, and at other times by appointment.
4 Nevill Street, The Pantiles,
Kent TN2 5SA
01892 522 750