The South London Fine Art Gallery has its beginnings in the opening of the South London Working Men’s College in 1886. William Rossiter, supporter of the college, purchased the freehold of Portland House in Peckham Road in 1889 and began work on building a new gallery in the grounds. It opened on 4 May 1891. The permanent site was partly secured thanks to fundraising by the Gallery’s influential Council, which included Sir Frederic Leighton, Edward Burne-Jones, G. F. Watts and Walter Crane. In the 1890s, the newspaper magnate and philanthropist John Passmore Edwards funded not only the addition of a Lecture Hall and Library to the rear of the Gallery where the Clore Studio now stands, but also the building of an adjacent Technical College, which became known as Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts. In 1896, ownership and management of the Gallery passed to the Vestry of Camberwell, later transferring to the Borough of Camberwell, and then to the Borough of Southwark. The selection of works of art on display had until then been loaned or donated to the Gallery by private collectors and artists, but from the beginning of the 20th century a structured programme of temporary exhibitions was introduced.
The Gallery was closed to the public during World War One and World War Two when it was used as government offices. In 1941, the Lecture Hall and Library building suffered significant damage during an air raid and was later demolished. When the Gallery re-opened in 1949, it continued to host temporary exhibitions, sometimes drawing on its own permanent art collection which had been steadily growing since the 19th century. Open exhibitions and the work of exhibiting groups, such as the South London Group, were common features of the programme over the next forty years.
With the appointment of David Thorp as Director in 1992, the Gallery came to be known as the South London Gallery (SLG) with a programme focused on contemporary art, and showing work by internationally acclaimed artists such as Gilbert & George, Anselm Kiefer and Sherrie Levine, as well as new, emerging artists of the time such as Tracey Emin, Gavin Turk and Ann Sofi-Sidén. In addition, works by artists such as Antony Gormley and Anish Kapoor were acquired for the permanent collection with the support of the Contemporary Art Society. The collection follows two main themes: artists picturing themselves and artists recording the local area, with works by Sarah Lucas, Keith Coventry, Angus Fairhurst, Christian Boltanski and Keith Tyson. The SLG is best known for its changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions.
Margot Heller was appointed Director in 2001 and the SLG continued to build on its national and international reputation. The SLG separated from Southwark Council to become an independent charitable trust managed by a Board of Trustees. In 2003 the SLG undertook an extension project with Stanton Williams Architects and the artist Ori Gersht. A further building project, completed in 2010, significantly expanded the Gallery’s spaces. Designed by 6a architects the previously derelict neighbouring three-storey house was transformed into the Matsudaira Wing, which provided additional galleries, a bookshop, café and a double height events space leading out onto the Fox Garden, designed by Fraser & Morris. To the rear, built on the site of the old Lecture Hall and Library, the Clore Studio was designed as a flexible space for education workshops, talks, film screenings and private hire. This area was further transformed in 2016 when artist Gabriel Orozco designed a new permanent garden in the outside space adjacent to the Clore Studio.
Over the past 20 years, the SLG has worked with hundreds of artists on a wide range of exhibitions and projects, as well as supporting the professional development and practice of artists through residencies in the Outset Artists’ Flat. Throughout this period the SLG has been committed to presenting new work by early and mid-career artists such as Alice Channer, Isabelle Cornaro, Rashid Johnson, Ryan Gander, Gabriel Kuri and Oscar Murillo, as well as by established international figures such as Dara Birnbaum, Thomas Hirschhorn and Lawrence Weiner. This period has also been characterised by the depth of the SLG’s commitment to engaging local residents in its programme, often through long-term projects, and including thousands of children, young people, and adults in inspiring creative, social and training activities.
In 2018 the SLG expanded into the former Peckham Road Fire Station. The Grade II listed building, which was generously donated to the Gallery by an anonymous benefactor, is an addition to the SLG’s main site, enabling the Gallery to enhance the ambition, scope and impact of its programmes to sustain a long-term future.