Why Iwan and Manuela Wirth have hit the pub
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Swiss gallerists Iwan and Manuela Wirth of contemporary art gallery Hauser & Wirth are no strangers to ambitious hospitality projects. Through Artfarm, the hospitality company they launched in 2014, they look after Manuela restaurant in Los Angeles, the Roth Bar & Grill in Somerset and the Fife Arms in Scotland, a hotel that is home to over 14,000 antiques and artworks including a Picasso and a Freud. In August, it was also announced that they had bought the Groucho Club in Soho.
But last month saw the launch of their first London venture, The Audley, on the corner of Mount Street and South Audley Street in Mayfair. Even by their standards, it’s a “crazy project”, says Iwan, that gives them somewhere to entertain close to their Savile Row gallery and forthcoming flagship space on South Audley Street (due to open in 2024).
The building, erected in 1888 and designed by Thomas Verity, the man responsible for the exterior of the pavilion at Lord’s Cricket Ground, used to be a hotel, then a pub with rooms for staff. Now, the space restored and reimagined by architect Luis Laplace, it encompasses The Audley Public House on the ground floor, the all-day Mount St Restaurant on the first floor and four spectacular private dining spaces across the upper floors, with some 200 artworks on display throughout.
The street-level pub is most faithful to the original. The tiled entrance has been restored, as has the dark wood panelling inside. There are low stools, dark blue/grey carpets and blackboards behind the bar. “‘What have they done?’ will be the best compliment,” says Iwan of the traditional scheme. Though you’d have to be sloshed to miss one major intervention: a boldly colourful work by British artist Phyllida Barlow consisting of handpainted paper, cut and collaged onto the ceiling.
The 64-cover restaurant upstairs is home to another exuberant installation: a marble palladiana floor by American artist Rashid Johnson. And Iwan and Manuela have clearly had fun collecting pieces for the walls. Many are food related, including Lucian Freud’s A Plate of Prawns, Henri Matisse’s Éperlans (smelt fish), Andy Warhol’s Lobster and, in the stairwell, the 10-photo Ohne Titel (Wurstserie) by Fischli & Weiss. This 1979 piece is particularly close to the gallerists’ hearts as the work of Swiss artists and a paean to sausage, which Iwan and Manuela are crazy about. “We are from St Gallen,” says Manuela, “home to a famous veal sausage called St Gallen bratwurst.” “It grows when you grill it,” Iwan adds.
The private dining spaces on the second, third and fourth floors are also themed. The Swiss Room is home to paintings by Ferdinand Hodler and vintage Willy Guhl chairs. In The Italian Room “we had to have de Chirico”, Iwan says; hence La Muse (1974), among other works. The highlight of The Scottish Room, which features a 26-seat banqueting table under an enormous antler chandelier, is a 1740 painting of Bonnie Prince Charlie by Italian court artist Domenico Duprà. The Games Room on the top floor, which comprises a lounge and bar, is dominated by smut. This includes a specially commissioned ceiling work by Anj Smith reinterpreting tentacle erotica (I had to look that up), vaginal studies by Ida Applebroog and something resembling a sausage by Robert Mapplethorpe.
The food, overseen by chef Jamie Shears, who previously worked under Gordon Ramsay, Chris Galvin and Wolfgang Puck, pays homage to classic British dishes. Among those in the pub are London rarebit, a take on Welsh rarebit using London Pride and served on sourdough so crisp you can pick it up like a canapé; and London Particular, a hearty split-pea and ham hock soup that takes its name from London fogs, or “pea soupers”. Naturally, there are sausages too, including St Gallen sausage with mustard in a bread roll, the way certain Swiss gallerists like it.
The more elevated restaurant menu offers starters such as omelette Arnold Bennett, mock-turtle croquettes and a refined smoked eel with potato salad, followed by pigeons in Pimlico (squab pigeon, goose liver and mushrooms en croûte with smoked bacon sauce) and a scrumptious lobster pie for two. Desserts include peach-melba soufflé and a raspberry blancmange (moulded in the shape of a rabbit).
“Finally [our artists] have a home in London. They will always have a table here,” says Iwan. But will they have to pay (as they don’t at the restaurant in LA)? “No!” says Manuela. “We’ll see,” says Iwan, almost simultaneously. Among the wider public, the hope is that people come for the art. But will they leave with the art too? I’m thinking primarily of the salt and pepper cruets inspired by Paul McCarthy’s sex-toy-shaped Tree. “I have stolen ashtrays all my life,” admits Iwan. “But we trust people. [At the Fife Arms] we only ever had one £5 print disappear from the toilet on the opening day.” Besides, the cruets are so heavy, it would be like pocketing an anvil. theaudleypublichouse.com
This article has been corrected – it originally described the palladiana floor as mosaic