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What's On, Art

From Small Spaces to Sweeping Skies

Esther Lafferty
LR image Brooding Sky 2019 ink and gesson on birch 80 x 90 x 3.4cm Alex McIntyre copy 2 2 vyp9ax
Midge Naylor

An understated Victorian terraced house tucked away in an East Oxford side street seems an unlikely setting for an art gallery. However, at her home on Essex Street, Vanessa Lacey, owner of Irving Contemporary, combines family life and her passion for art, bringing a fresh contribution to the contemporary art world in Oxfordshire, and to the vibrant and creative Magdalen Road area of Oxford.

Why did you decide to set up a gallery here?

Before I opened the gallery last November, I worked in publishing, most recently at Oxford University Press. However, my background is in the visual arts: I did a foundation course in art and design and started a fine art degree, before studying history of art at University of Nottingham and the Courtauld Institute of Art, and working with the charity, Art Fund in London. For some years I had been yearning to return to the visual arts and I was also keen to run my own business. In 2019 I took a sabbatical to explore and research my idea for a new art gallery in Oxford. I opened Irving Contemporary the same year. Embarking on a new career as a gallerist felt risky and slightly terrifying at the time, but I haven’t looked back. Having been eyeing up vacant shops in Oxford with curious interest, once I began to look at possible premises in earnest, it became clear that I should launch my gallery at home, converting our family sitting room into the gallery space, a decision that has turned out to be hugely positive and liberating.

How does the domestic setting influence the art you choose to display and the experience for those visiting?

Obviously, the modest scale of the domestic setting of Irving Contemporary dictates the scale of the work I can show, and occasionally I feel frustrated that I’m not able to exhibit the largest works of the artists with whom I’m in dialogue. But I enjoy the challenge of hanging work within a domestic space. The shape of my gallery, with its bay window and chimney breast flanked by recessed alcoves, means that exhibitions of artworks in a range of different sizes work best – this is also true of our homes. Showing work in a typical Victorian terrace, like countless others in Oxford and elsewhere, really enables people to picture the art they see on their own walls. People can feel intimidated in large, white-walled commercial galleries, but here at Irving Contemporary, visitors are welcomed into what was our sitting room – a familiar and comfortable space.

Alex McIntyre

It’s lovely to talk about the art and the artists, if people want to chat, while some people prefer the companionable experience of looking at the work quietly together in the same space – I take my cues from the visitors. People have commented on the lovely sense of serenity they feel here once they walk off the street, and that is exactly what I hope to offer: a friendly and personal experience, but not intrusive either; a beautiful place to stop and breathe, and step away from the noise of everyday life.

Midge Naylor

And while I do my best to tidy up and hide the evidence of family life on the days the gallery is open (no football boots in the hall), visitors nonetheless understand that the gallery is in our family house. This both makes the setting more informal and shows that having young children is no obstacle to putting lovely original art on the walls. The gallery itself, where I show a lot of ceramics, is not out of bounds to the children since this is also their home. Though I have admittedly had to say “no lightsabers in the gallery” on occasion, there have been no mishaps and it has also been really wonderful to see how the children (aged 6 and 9) respond to the art on show. All of our lives are undoubtedly enriched by being surrounded by such stunning work.

© Alexandra Jane Photography

This month, in the lead grey interior of her bright gallery space, Vanessa presents a new exhibition, Inside Out / Outside In, which brings together three artists, each of whom has responded to and sought solace in nature and memory of place, with many of the works created during the difficult isolated months of lockdown.

Tell us what you’re particularly excited about in this new exhibition.

I’m really excited to be showing the work of Alex McIntyre, Midge Naylor and Gemma Petrie together in this next exhibition, primarily because each artist’s work is striking, strong and original, and because their work is very different to each other, which will make for some challenges and surprises in the curation of the exhibition.

Gemma Petrie

Alex McIntyre creates paintings primarily using ink and a traditional primer, known as gesso, on birch or poplar panel. She is inspired by walking and tries to capture a sense of the feeling of being in and moving through the landscape. Her works are not of particular places, but the memory of experiences outside; of breath, movement and light. The paintings in the exhibition explore sky, weather and landscapes, often offering a vast sense of space which feels like a window has opened up in the wall on which they hang. Their swirling skies are a welcome contrast to months of local lockdown.

Gemma Petrie

Bristol-based Scottish artist Midge Naylor’s experimental semi-abstract paintings are derived from fragments of place, memory, experience and imagination. Sometimes domestic objects find their way into empty spaces with a strange dream-like quality, the paintings using improvised marks, unpredictable textures and colour to explore the sensory experience rather than the physical form of a place.

The exhibition will also include a new series of six small ‘Wee Beasties’ paintings by Gemma Petrie. With a focus on mini-ecosystems and the life within them, Petrie’s intriguing paintings incorporate the beauty and secrets of the natural world she finds in her native Scotland, whether that is memories of rock pools or observations of the fascinating patterns observed in ferns and forest roots. With organic shapes and a striking mix of gentle natural hues layered with vibrant contrasts, these stunningly original paintings are rich with the mystery of nature’s small hidden worlds.

The exhibition runs from Saturday 26 September to Saturday 31 October. Irving Contemporary is at 28 Essex Street, Oxford, and is open on Thursday 11 am - 5 pm, Friday 11 am - 3 pm, Saturday 11 am - 5 pm, and other days/times by appointment. More information is available at


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