It’s no secret that London offers a seemingly endless number of famous landmarks, historic structures, and artistic masterpieces. But given the city’s abundant cultural attractions, it can be difficult to know where to begin exploring. That’s where Rose Balston comes in. A young London entrepreneur and the founder of Art History UK, Rose turned her passion for art history into an organisation that brings locals and visitors alike up close to the city’s many wonders. Read our exclusive interview with Rose for an inside look at the tour company’s bespoke offerings, a sampling of the many artworks that attendees can expect to see, and top tips for discovering London’s hidden riches.
Art history isn’t usually the field that comes to mind when people think about setting up their own business. How did you decide that this was what you wanted to do, and did you have to overcome some doubters?
After working in Italy for four years, I came home to discover that very few of my friends spent time with London’s incredible collection of art and architecture. Many of them felt it was all a bit inaccessible and that to study it would be like going back to school – and of course the barriers went up. In response, I set up my Thursday and Friday evening Art Shots. These are largely for the working Londoner who wants a burst of culture after work, and have become not only a great opportunity to learn about London but also to meet new people. We have drinks beforehand and often head out for dinner in Soho afterwards. The Art Shots were the first seeds of the business – since then we have created a series of tours for private groups, clubs, corporates, and high-end tourists that take people throughout London.
Where did your love of art history begin? Did you visit a lot of museums and galleries when you were younger?
Culture has been very much part of my life from the start: my father is a landscape architect, my mother is a painter and my brothers are both highly creative. Art history became a passion of mine when I studied it for A-level – we had a fabulously vibrant, energetic and excitable teacher, who held the subject in such esteem that in respect she donned her bright pink lipstick each time she came to class.
Your love of art has taken you to Spain, Italy and beyond. What has been the most exciting discovery you’ve made during your travels?
So many! Here are a few: the Pantheon when the rain is floating in through the central oculus; Cordoba’s mosque with a whopping great baroque cathedral in the centre; the flamboyant east end of Saint Séverin in Paris, best seen at night time; Pontormo’s heavenly Annunciation in Santa Felicita, Florence; the mystical sunken churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia …
What era in art history most interests you, and where is the best place in London to see works dating from that period?
I love Restoration and early Georgian London. Sir Christopher Wren was of course a genius, and his city churches endlessly amaze me. For all those who work in the City of London, just spend 10 minutes over your lunch in St Stephen Walbrook or St Mary Aldermary (nice café inside) – you feel like you have completely escaped London.
In early Georgian London there was an amazing group of men working to promote ‘Britishness’. Hawskmoor and Hogarth were two of the greatest. Go and see Hogarth’s hilarious ‘Rake’s Progress’ in the Soane Museum or ‘Marriage a la Mode’ in the National Gallery. Hawskmoor’s six London churches are massively underestimated and well worth a visit. All of the above places are free to visit.
Tell us about your bespoke tours: how do you put together itineraries for private tour groups?
All of our private tours are completely bespoke, so it depends on budget, how many people are in the group, what their interests are, what kind of experiences they want to have, etc. Once we have a good understanding of this, we put an itinerary together that I hope will hold lots of surprises.
Private tours could range from exclusive, behind-the-scenes-access to Westminster Abbey for a corporate group; a sex, drugs and rock n’ roll tour around Soho for a hen or stag party; or a one-on-one tour for a student studying the subject who wants to get razzed up and inspired before taking their exams.
What do you offer that nobody else does?
We have lots of unique insider access to private collections, galleries, museums, and more. Aside from this, the most important thing about Art History UK is that every tutor (there are currently 12) oozes joie-de-vivre, passion, humour, charisma and knowledge. It is a fabulous combination for this kind of work.
What makes London a particularly hospitable environment for young entrepreneurs like yourself?
For art historian entrepreneurs like myself, the city offers world-class collections, churches, architecture, auctions, and lectures. For young entrepreneurs generally, London is a real hub of creative thinking. There are so many ideas bouncing around, and as a consequence, it’s a very exciting atmosphere to set up a business in.
For visitors to London who are only here for a short time, what do you think are the essential museums or cultural sights to visit?
Westminster Abbey is crucial to put London’s key history into place. However for the more adventurous visitor I would suggest places like the Sir John Soane's Museum, Leighton House Museum, Wren’s St Stephen’s Walbrook, the medieval St Bartholomew’s the Great, and the Wallace Collection.
Many Londoners don’t actually explore their own city – where would you recommend they go to see something a little different or unsung that is not on the usual tourist checklist?
Dennis Severs House on Folgate Street always thrills Londoners. They can’t believe that such an extraordinary place can be right on their doorstep. Whilst they’re visiting, they should also check out the Charnel House in Bishop’s Square – a medieval bone house (the bones are in the Museum of London now, but the wonderful old stones remain!)
It’s your job to know London inside and out. Any favourite haunts or insider tips you’d care to share (apart from museums and galleries that is)?
Wilton’s Music Hall is wonderful – supposedly the oldest surviving music hall in the world, its atmosphere is amazingly potent, and it has great shows and a lovely bar and cafe. A few minutes walk away are two more fascinating things: Hawksmoor’s St George’s in the East and the Cable Street Mural depicting the fight against fascism.
When London gets to be too much, where do you go to escape the city that’s within an hour’s drive?
Anywhere green! Windsor Great Park is fab, and in an hour you can almost get to the South Downs. I would prefer to go to the Wiltshire Downs most of all (1.5 hrs). A good blustery walk and a hearty pub lunch sorts it all out.
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