New art space is in playwright’s memory

Polly Stenham and Victoria Williams have created a contemporary art space in Camden in memory of Antony ‘cob’ Stenham

UNIVERSITY friends Polly Stenham and Victoria Williams have opened a new art gallery and artists’ studios in Camden Town.

The Cob Studios and Gallery in Royal College Street – named after Stenham’s father Antony “Cob” Stenham – will also be a base for the fast-rising young playwright to work on her scripts.

Stenham, whose plays That Face and Tusk Tusk enjoyed critically acclaimed runs at The Royal Court, was left some money when her father died in 2006.

“I wanted to invest in something he was keen on and he was a big supporter of the arts,” says the 23-year-old.

“I was struck by the loneliness of my job which involves sitting in front of a computer and I loved the idea of an artistic community, a group of artists working in the same building, instead of everyone doing it on their own.

“I love to write but I have a big interest in art because it works a different part of my brain. I am quite a sociable person and I like collaborating with other people. Sitting on your own for hours in a room isn’t enough.”

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Williams, an art history graduate, who met Stenham while they were studying at UCL in Bloomsbury, will run the gallery, programme and curate the exhibitions.

She is excited about the possibility for collaboration and cross-fertilisation between different artists and hopes the space will radiate a democratic atmosphere, luring in visitors who might not otherwise go to see art.

“We wanted to provide somewhere for our creative friends working in different bits of the arts with the possibility of them meeting up and maybe working together,” says Williams.

“Art galleries can be stiff and intimidating but this isn’t the kind of space where you would usually find a gallery. There’s nothing like it in Camden Town and we hope it will attract people who wouldn’t usually go into one.”

The former TV and film studio, which has been imaginatively revamped by architects Llowarch Llowarch, will also house pop-up shops, talks, film screenings and yoga classes.

“The architects have done an amazing job letting in loads of light and allowing us to hang huge pieces of art if we want,” says Stenham.

“We hope lots of people can get something from the space. We’d love it to be somewhere people feel they can wander in.”

The gallery will be self-financing, funded by renting out the artists’ studios and gallery space for functions, screenings and launches.

But Stenham and Williams are hoping to offer subsidised rents for students and emerging artists.

“I am very aware of how tough times are in the arts and of how lucky I am to be in this financial position,” says Stenham, who dropped out half-way through her university course when That Face was staged at the Royal Court in 2007.

It was lauded by critics including The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer who called it “one of the most astonishing debuts I have seen in more than 30 years of theatre reviewing”.

“I am a dropout,” she admits. “I initially deferred to do the production, then I got more work and people said I should ride it and just keep going.”

Currently in high demand, Stenham is adapting Tusk Tusk for a Channel 4 film, writing another film based on the 1918 cocaine scandal, and delivering her third play to the Royal Court.

“It’s called No Quarter. It’s bigger in terms of cast and ideas than the other two and quite plotted, but I don’t want to say more because I’m afraid if I say the storyline out loud I’ll think it sounds s**t.”

Although Stenham believes Britain has the best fringe theatre in the world, she finds a lot of theatre “expensive and over-intellectualised”.

“I’m very into the craft of what I do, rather than the academic side.”

Both her plays, about highly dysfunctional middle-class families, were part of a new era at the Royal Court where artistic director Dominic Cooke has promised to probe middle-class hinterlands rather than working-class kitchen sink drama.

Stenham acknowledges That Face probably landed on the right desk at the right time, but feels the wave of plays mining middle-class angst has already broken.

“It was a time after a drip drip of kitchen sink dramas, and it was a good movement to happen, but perhaps that patch might be waning a bit.

“Ulimately, the natural territory of theatre is people watching people. It’s got a responsibility to maximise all that is radical and exciting. That’s why I am a big fan of theatre. It will always by my first love, because it’s more of a writer’s medium, while in film you are much lower down the chain.”

The Cob Gallery’s opening show, Unnatural Nature, muses on our contemporary relationship with nature and includes Katie Paterson’s Lightbulb To Simulate Moonlight, an eerie exhibit which emits the identical light and amperage of a full moon and James P Graham’s dual screen film work Iddu, a panoramic, multi-camera view of an active volcano shot over four years.

Anna Curtis creates visually arresting wallpaper based on scans of cultivated moulds and there’s a specially commissioned sculpture by Dmitri Galizine inspired by Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra And Simulation which is created from formica cupboards.

“It comments on our post-modern society as a simulated society where our relationship with nature involves going to manicured gardens and parks,” says Williams, who like Stenham lives in Highgate.

Appropriately, the pair head off towards the wilds of Hampstead Heath to walk Stenham’s dog.

“Camden Town is so dirty,” says Stenham.

“Here you feel on top of London. You can always get rad and skanky down town, then come home and get away from everything.”

o Unnatural Nature runs until March 3. Further details at