Meet London’s Subway Gallerist

Exterior of the Subway Gallery, London. Courtesy of Kenny Schachter. Photo: Courtesy of Kenny Schachter

I paid a visit to gallery situated in a 1960s-era kiosk under London’s Marylebone Flyover, in a subway station run by a vintage Westernwear-wearing cowboy, artist, and gallerist personifying British eccentricity at its best — except for the fact that he hails from Canada. His name is Robert Gordon McHarg III FRSA (Fellows of the Royal Society of Arts, whatever that means). Encounters like this partly account for the difficulty I have reading fiction. For eight years, he’s staged more than 80 exhibits ranging from a rock ephemera library — he’s Clash-obsessed, in particular with Joe Strummer (who died in 2002) — to an upcoming Western-themed vintage clothing pop-up.

It boggles the mind how he lives like mole people, bands of homeless that exist year-round under cities in disused train networks, only he’s a party of one, a (very) lone cowboy. In the immediate area outside his transparent pod, the walls are festooned with funky glass tiles in period shades of orange and contrasting yellows. McHarg cares for the underground walkway by sweeping and keeping clean the common areas that include another hut that used to house Ethiopian khat sellers, an ancient euphoria inducing-flowering plant, recently declared illegal in the U.K. Robert convinced the storeowners to change course and now they are selling art from the Horn of Africa. What else would they do nowadays?

McHarg's signage above ground for his Joe Strummer Subway. Courtesy of Kenny Schachter.

By becoming a kind of de facto mayor of the tube station, he's gotten the local counsel to leave him to his own devices, even when he occasionally ventures outside the confines of his micro-space to stage performances, like the public painting production by Pauline Amos where the police came and tacitly accepted the commotion and even stayed to watch. McHarg went as far as to rechristen the station the Joe Strummer Subway, erecting signage that remains intact five years later. Imagine the reaction of the NYPD.

At the show on view, I was drawn to a small, royal blue, shiny painted rock that looked like the cropped head of Cookie Monster with simplistically rendered googly eyes. When I queried Mr. McHarg III (FRSA) as to its origins, he explained it was his work, he was a rock painter, a rock star, a line clearly as worn as his boots and Stetson. But it was very cute nevertheless. His art of the past has included a well-publicized wax effigy of Charles Saatchi, his attempt to “collect the collector,” which has adorned one of the glass vitrine windows that surround his otherwise Phillip Johnson–esque Glass House.

Having worked with the Clash in the past on boxed CD sets, exhibits and some artworks for merchandising, next up he is raising funds for a Joe Strummer statue. It’s not exactly underground art, but it’s definitely well beneath the Warth’s surface. McHarg is a one-man anti-market dissident whose efforts are consumed by the public whether they like it or not, as they rush past his place to and fro on their daily commutes. The lack of natural light alone would drive me to distraction, but what’s most amazing about this little pocket utopia is that it exists at all.