Tucked behind the Royal Academy of Arts and the Burlington Arcade is a network of streets housing gallery after gallery of sought-after art. It's a sort of secret destination: gallery fronts are plain, doors are shut, and everything is hushed - in stark contrast to the other end of the Arcade, where tourists queue en masse to get their hands on some Fortnum & Mason tea.
Were it not for the Google Maps application on my smartphone, I might well have missed Beaux Arts, with its plain, floor-to-ceiling glass façade. Even when I got there, I had to double-check I had arrived at the right place, since in the window was a large installation which largely obscured the exhibition inside, entitled A Celebration: Modern British Sculpture. I tried to ignore the air of exclusivity (reinforced by the hefty price tags!) as I walked around - although Beaux Arts is a commercial gallery, the exhibition has a museum feel about it: there is no charge to get in, and it's mercifully far quieter than some of the more visited art galleries around London.
It turns out that the large installation in the window is in fact part of the exhibition: it is Marilène Oliver's Dreamcatcher, a perspex-encased play on the Native American object, but on an enormous scale. The webbed hoops are not wooden, but made from laser-cut acrylic; the webbing is fishing wire, on which hang dozens of pure, white ostrich feathers. The transparent quality is already dreamlike, but you need to stand back to get the entire effect. Viewed from the side, the acrylic rings form the shape of an outstretched, sleeping human being, and since the fishing wire is invisible at a distance, it appears as though he is levitating over a feathery bed. The conceptual nature of this sculpture sets the tone for the rest of the exhibition, with notable exceptions.
I had always thought that modern British scultpure would largely comprise Henry Moore-type bronze-cast abstract shapes and quasi-figures. Beaux Arts' exhibition completely turned my preconceptions on their head. Yes, there were some bronze sculptures, but not all of them were abstract; it would be fair to say that several, such as Elisabeth Frink's Fighting Cocks and Eduardo Paolozzi's Horse with Anatomy nodded towards more traditional forms, though with a thoroughly modern edge to their composition. There were also several figurative sculptures, but they, too, were recognisably contemporary: the late Lynn Chadwick's bronze figures, sat on or walking up steps, with their distinctive triangular heads and stick-man limbs, or Paul Mount's Les Amoureux, in polished, oxidised bronze, conveyed expression as much as any Rodin, albeit by minimal detail.
Nature is another great source of inspiration for several of the works in this exhibition. Anna Gillespie takes nature not just as an inspiration, but also as a material for her works, such as Encircled Time, a hollowed-out section of tree trunk ("found wood", as the description puts it) in which a delicate bronze figure sits pensively, and Long Way Down, which similarly uses found wood and features a bronze sculpture (albeit one dangling precariously from a rusty nail!). My favourite of the exhibition, Stephanie Carlton Smith's stunning "Pity Me" American Maple so closely resembles a real tree that I had to get up close to see that it is in fact made of bronze. The smooth, marble rings add textural and formal contrast; I couldn't quite work out what they represent, but I liked trying to do so (perhaps they represent the round-and-round movements of children dancing round the once-alive tree). Simon Allen's "Cracked Earth" series of wall-hung sculptures ironically uses the luxurious to depict the barren: 12-karat white gold layered over carved wood lends a glamorous sheen to large-scale sculptures representing infertile land.
There is plenty of 'serious' sculpture for the keen collector, but the exhibition has space for some more light-hearted contributions by eminent British names. David Mach's blue-faced, pink-lipped sculpture of Betty Boop's head, made entirely out of matchsticks, is quirky and raised a wry smile from others wandering round the gallery. Marilène Oliver's Bang Bang Blue, a human head and torso composed of layers of blue foam and bonded nylon, punctuated with medal beads, looks as though it has been created using 3D printing. Describing such sculptures as light-hearted is, however, should not downplay the obvious skill and craftsmanship of their creators.
All eyes are now on London, for reasons that should be obvious: anyone heading to London and wishing to indulge in cultural activity minus the maddening crowds should head to Beaux Arts for peace, quiet, and some captivating modern British sculpture.