Portrait: Tim Grosvenor
Name: Tim Grosvenor
Nationality: British Madagascan
Occupation: Artist, gallery owner and restaurateur.
‘I was writing a letter at a pub, and somebody came up with a little sketch of me, and said, “There’s someone who’d like to paint you!“‘
Every week, Brussels Express meets individuals connected to the city through work, life or play, building a picture of the community of 184 nationalities who help to make Brussels what it is. It’s fitting that our very first ‘portrait’ is with Tim Grosvenor – artist, restaurateur and owner of Gallery 151 in Ixelles – who shares his journey and gives us his take on Brussels life.
Can you give us a brief introduction to your journey? Where do you come from?
My birth right is British Madagascan. My father was a missionary out there for about 18 years. I’m a classic example of someone who is detached from his birth nationality and when I first went to school in the UK, I felt like an alien. I’ve lived longer outside the UK than inside. What I really feel is European. I feel like a citizen of the world. Theresa May would call people like me a ‘citizen of nowhere‘ but I feel like a citizen of everywhere. I’m very attached to Brussels now; I feel so at home here, because Brussels is full of people like me, trying to make their home. Anybody can make it theirs. The Belgians seem very modest about that. I’ve never encountered any nativism here.
I studied Fine Art for five years including History of Art and then I had a long career in policy research. I ran a company in London, oriented around public transport, mobility and social exclusion, criminology – a raft of issues to do with public policy. I did a huge study on confidence in the criminal justice system in the UK. We talked to convicted criminals, police, prison officers, judges, victims and they all said, the jury system because the jury doesn’t really have an angle. You’re judged by your peers. I presented to a sharp-suited bunch of policy-makers and civil servants and said the key thing that establishes confidence is the jury system. They wanted to cut costs by not having a jury, so it wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
To tell the truth, I had imposter syndrome for about 25 years, where I thought a spotlight would suddenly shine on me and show me up as a fraud. I also don’t like labels and if I get stuck in one thing, I want to shift into another. While working, I kept trying to find a creative outlet and did quite a lot of writing, looking for somewhere I could go where I wasn’t just working for a client.
Then I had a strange experience. I was in the UK near the Tate, writing a letter at a pub, and somebody came up with a little sketch of me, and said, ‘There’s someone who’d like to paint you!’ I was amazed. It was a guy called Michael Reynolds who was a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters – and I thought it was a sign that I should go back into the art world. He came to France and painted my portrait. So, I slowly got back into art. It was the opposite of what people say about riding a bike. It was like climbing up a cliff face. It’s not just about lack of practice; visual art is not like playing a violin. It’s about context and choices. You have to find what you want to express. I’d just got to the point where I was doing an exhibition in Switzerland and I did a piece and thought the whole of my life has culminated in this moment: it made sense to me. And then, just then, there was personal drama. I split up with the mother of my children and the eureka moment was trampled by the fallout of all that.
But actually, art is an iterative process. I’m not so interested in the individual pieces. I’m interested in the journey. I mean even Michelangelo was considered an artisan. The image of Van Gogh epitomises what most people think of as the modern idea of an artist but he’s a rarity in the visual arts – it’s about being craftsperson and honing your craft.
Why Brussels? And what were your first impressions?
I didn’t actually choose Brussels. I was living in Switzerland and my ex-partner found a job in Brussels and I didn’t want to be separated from my kids, so I moved here, which was fine. I didn’t like Zurich at all. It felt moribund. You need so much money to make an impact there, whereas in Brussels it felt like you could do something.
What were the most difficult aspects in terms of daily life when you arrived?
I had no network and was on my own with the children for half the time. I knew nobody and was ‘old’ and had no job, so no colleagues. But I’d had a gallery before in France and so I opened the gallery at 151 Chaussée de Wavre. People said I should be in the Tanneurs district, but I like Matongé and for a long time I’d lived around Notting Hill Gate and Portobello Road in London and in a way Matongé reminded me of what that used to be like. The character of Ixelles is changing – the works on Chaussée d’Ixelles for example, but it needed it. I hope it doesn’t change too much though. Near the commune, this young guy has opened a bar. Green tiling. Very low key, and they’ve left the old décor. It’s cool. If you did that in London, you’d have to have a bank behind you.
Do you gravitate towards people of similar culture to yours or are you more often with Belgians, Brussels residents?
Some expats constantly harp on about what they miss but you can get everything here in Brussels and I’m engaged with being here. I travel but I consider this my home. When I lived in France, my idea of hell was to spend Sundays drinking pink gins with other Brits and no French at all. Wherever I’m living I want to make that place home. Anyway, there’s not enough time to be homesick. I gravitate to anyone who’s interesting in any way. I’m anti the notion of nations and what appeals to me about Belgium is it seems one of the most modest nations. There’s a global joke about it being difficult to ‘name ten famous Belgians’ and the Belgians just shrug their shoulders, even though they have huge achievements. I’m scared of nationalism because you never know where it ends. I like Belgium, and especially Brussels, because whether you’re Belgian, Slovenian, Portuguese, whatever . . . you can belong. So, I gravitate to people who like Brussels. I think it’s a cool city, I really do, and the more I see, the more I like it.
If you were mayor of one of the 19 Brussels communes or if you were Minister-President of the Brussels-Capital Region, what would you do as your first action?
My first action would be bins or pavements. I love Brussels but I do think the state of the pavements is barbaric. It’s the capital of Europe and yet you see these works sites and pavements with chaotic barriers and rubble in the street and huge chunks of metal sticking out of the ground. How are people with partial sight, for example, or a wheelchair supposed to get around? As I said, I used to work a lot on mobility. There was a project called ‘Civilising Cities‘ about what you could do to make a city reach maturity as a civilised space. If you want to improve the quality of people’s lives, start with their front doorstep. Your own private world is one thing, but if you walk through the door you want something that is conducive to all forms of mobility.
What has your attention in the news at the moment?
I suppose Brexit to an extent. I am very much a European and I am sad about Brexit. In the UK, urban areas were in general more positive towards Europe in the referendum that suburban areas. Cities tend to make people more open-minded. That is my belief anyway and it’s another reason why I like urban areas, because in large conurbations it’s very mixed and you simply have to get on with your neighbours. It was areas without much immigration that voted strongly for Brexit and that worries me.
What are your favourite shops in Belgium/Brussels?
Schleiper on Charleroi. It’s the best art shop I have ever been to. It’s utterly unbelievable. I’ve taken other artists there. For a city to have an art shop of that calibre is amazing. The choice is breath–taking. I don’t think even in London or New York there’s anything that matches it. You can get stuff that artists dream of. Every brand and colour of paint, and materials you’ve never even heard of.
And your favourite Belgian/Brussels specialties?
It’s got to be chocolate. Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate any day. I’ve lived in two countries specialised in chocolate: Switzerland and Belgium. But the Belgian dark chocolate really does it for me.
Your favourite places or memories in Brussels?
The Ixelles lakes because I used to sit there with my new partner in the early days in Brussels and we’d drink wine, and I used to feel like I was on holiday. Also, when my son Jonathan was born in Brussels on a beautiful April day nearly a year ago – at the new Delta hospital.
Do you have a personal wish linked to Brussels?
I hope that Brussels doesn’t lose its charm through too much money. You can’t stand too much in the way of progress and I like progress, but I hope Brussels doesn’t lose its rough and ready charm. When I first moved to London, it was quite grungy and not the slick city it is now, and the London underground was accused of being shambolically filthy. It’s a hard thing to get right. To keep soul and have change is tough, wherever you go. Opposite our gallery, there’s a café called La Marraine run by Jacqui, who is the like the godmother of the whole neighbourhood. The guys sit outside drinking coffee and there’s African TV at full volume and if Brussels lost that, I’d be sad, and a lot of cities do. What happens is people think: ‘This is a cool place and I’d like to live here, but only if there’s a little baker there and a deli there…’ and it gradually pushes out the other businesses. But it goes in cycles, like in Detroit, which suffered the catastrophic destruction of the collapse and then the artists come and fill the vacuum. I don’t know of many city planners who can get it right. But, in Brussels, because of the politics here, they actually do try and create a mix. And if you’ve got public housing in inner city areas, which is want you need, what used to be called council houses, you can keep people who couldn’t afford private sector rents and Brussels is still very mixed thanks to that.
Tim will be hosting, ‘Looking Out’ – an exhibition by Dominique Rebibo – at Gallery 151, Chaussée de Wavre, from 28 March – 28 May 2019.