is the larger than life Australian who owns Gallery 19. But he is quick to point out that the Gallery is very much a family business. His wife Sandra is closely involved and his daughter Alex manages it on a day-to-day basis. But the most surprising thing about Gordon is that for most of his life he was a big-time executive in television, working for media tycoons like Rupert Murdoch and Kerry Packer. He opened the Gallery in 1995 when he’d finally had enough of spending 7 days a week on projects like launching Sky Television or a cable network in Hong Kong.
It’s an unusual gallery – almost one of a kind, because it specialises in architectural paintings, drawings and engravings. So how did a globe-trotting, no-nonsense TV executive end up owning a gallery in Kensington?
You have to go back to Gordon’s early life for an explanation. Gordon started his career as an assistant to a theatrical set-designer in Melbourne, and moved on to design sets himself for musicals like Carousel and Finian’s Rainbow. He never went to art-school, but taught himself to draw and paint, essential skills in set design. That led on to a 25 year career in television, but throughout this time he continued to paint. So when he wanted to start a new chapter in his life, opening a gallery seemed like a good idea.
Not to Rupert Murdoch. When Gordon told him, he said “I’ll keep your job open, Frenchie, you’ll be bust in 6 months.”
The Start of the Gallery
But Gordon knew of several artists with the same architectural interests as his. He asked them if they would like to exhibit in his Gallery and they were delighted to join him, as no-one else was doing it.
Sandra and Gordon were living in Kensington Court at the time. They loved the area and thought the run-down bathroom shop at 19 Kensington Court Place would be an ideal place for a gallery. It took a lot of work and money to convert. And for a year, it was touch and go whether they would succeed. In fact Gordon thought Murdoch might be right. In his own inimitable words, the Gallery ‘was going down the tubes.’
Two things saved the day. Gordon was being let down by the company that did his framing. So he lured away their best framer and together they set up a framing workshop in the basement of his Gallery. It was a struggle for 6 months, but then it took off and Gallery 19 has never looked back.
The other stroke of luck came about while he was walking his dog. On his walks through Kensington and its parks he got to know their landmarks and distinctive features. So he began to paint them – and discovered that the residents of Kensington really appreciate paintings of their neighbourhood and are always happy to buy them. They also like paintings of their houses. Foreigners particularly – who when they get posted to the UK, often find themselves renting elegant period houses, quite unlike the apartments in their own country. And what better reminder of their stay here than a picture by Gordon French of their London house!
Gallery 19 has a number of elements. As well as paintings and prints, there are books, maps, models and cards, all with their focus on architecture, Kensington – and Italy. Sandra’s parents were Italian who emigrated to Australia, so the whole family has a continuing love affair with the country. Every year they go back, where Gordon paints and seeks out new prints and pieces to bring back to the gallery.
Gallery 19 continues to flourish. Gordon is there every morning around 7 am. He has never needed much sleep. He’ll spend the three hours before the Gallery opens, painting and dreaming up new ventures. He loves the neighbourhood and enjoys nothing better than walking down Thackeray Street with a cup of coffee in his hand, greeting people and chatting with friends. And why not? He has a lot to be proud of.
Gallery 19 has helped make Thackeray Street one of Kensington’s favourite destinations.