I’m standing in the foyer of Sofitel London St James surrounded by giant vegetables. It’s not the start of a vegetarian convention but the work of French artist Patrick Laroche, famed for his sculptures of large legumes in funky colours.
For any tourist turning up late from Heathrow Airport it might be slightly disconcerting to share the reception with a pumped-up pea pod or a huge parsnip. However, with gallery space at a premium in the capital, it seems more and more artists are collaborating with hotels for a place to exhibit.
Contemporary art at the Sofitel London St James
There’s no hint of what lies inside the rather grand exterior of the Sofitel when I arrive. The Grade II listed building once housed Cox’s & King’s Bank. Indeed, outside the lobby in Waterloo Place is a rather more sombre sculpture: the bronze statue of the Crimean War Memorial.
Inside, traditional British design is infused with more than a hint of Gallic flair. Laroche’s exhibition was created to illustrate Sofitel’s passion for good food. The hotel’s Balcon restaurant cooked up a month-long menu of mouth-watering vegetable dishes as an accompaniment.
But there’s more to the hotel’s art interest than giant vegetables. The intimate St James Bar was inspired by Coco Chanel’s 1920s apartment in Paris, and there is permanent artwork hanging from nearly every wall.
Among them is a contemporary print by Blek Le Rat, one of the first graffiti artists in Paris. Nearby are prints by satirical cartoonist Ronald Searle, as well as an original oil painting by Thierry de Crosmieres entitled The Cock General.
The lobby has a pair of oil paintings by French visual artist Fitzia – plus a reproduction of The Scottish Sheeps, by the Belgium artist, Eugene Verboeckhoven. It looks wonderfully out of place next to some of the more contemporary works, especially a reproduction of The Cows by Picasso.
My favourite is in the Rose Lounge, where a Japanese family is currently enjoying afternoon tea. Behind them is a colourful work by Elisabeth Stenne, entitled The Nieces. Along the corridors upstairs are more works; even the bedrooms boast a mini collection on the walls.
Brit art at Conrad London St James
Nearby, the Conrad London St James also features an eclectic display of British art and design installations throughout the public areas.
It starts in reception with an enormous sculpture of a man climbing a ladder, except he has the Palace of Westminster on his hod.
The hotel contains a wide-ranging collection of unique and unusual pieces, including sculptures by Julian Bray and more modern artwork, such as The House Always Wins, by Evil Robots.
The hotel is situated in Britain’s decision-making heartland, and there are strong political themes throughout the property. My favourites are the quirky, 3D animations and cartoons by Gerald Scarfe, Martin Rowson and Simon Bingle.
Another unique feature at the Conrad is the ‘division bell’, only found in selected properties around Parliament. It signals a call to members in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. I was more interested in a brilliant collage with a political theme by Julian Bray, situated near the hotel’s Blue Boar Bar.
Picasso and Matisse at the Egerton House Hotel
The Egerton House Hotel, on the doorstep of London’s best museums in Knightsbridge, offers guests a guided tour of its private collection of 19th and 20th-century art.
The works belong to Beatrice Tollman, who founded the Red Carnation Hotel chain. You could spend hours studying the collection, which includes some splendid lithographs by Toulouse Lautrec next to reception.
There are drawings by JAK, who was one of Britain’s best known cartoonists when he worked for the Evening Standard, as well as an original Snoopy, pencilled by his creator, George Schultz, in the bar.
Original copies of the Illustrated London News line the walls of the corridors and each room has its old private collection, with works by Picasso, Chagall and Matisse.
If you’re not into the visual arts, one Martini cocktail from legendary barman Antonio will make everything look good.
London’s first art fair in a hotel, Marylebone
Elsewhere, the Level at Melia White House in Marylebone has taken the collaborative concept even further: it will be hosting the capital’s first ever art fair in a hotel. Artrooms 2015 runs from 23-26 January.
The entire first floor of the building will be converted into a giant gallery space. Each of the 76 rooms will house an artist and their collection, with workshops and advice from a gallery curator.
Among the artists who will attend are Mauro Pallotta, also known as MauPal. He’s famous for his giant street paining of Pope Francis depicted as Superman.
Irish impressionism in Bloomsbury
At the Bloomsbury Hotel, in the heart of London’s theatre district, there is currently an exhibition of works by Irish impressionist, Norman Teeling, which runs until the end of December.
The works celebrate the links between London and Dublin, as well as a nod to the hotel’s Irish heritage. There are ten pieces dotted around the bar and public areas. Perhaps it’s because the Bloomsbury once boasted Nobel Poet Laureate, Seamus Heaney as a regular guest.
London’s top three art exhibitions
Like your art in a gallery? Here are London’s current top three exhibitions
Constable: The Making of a Master (V&A Museum until 20 January). This exhibition, just across the road the Egerton House Hotel, reveals how John Constable created some of his best-loved paintings. On display are famous works including The Hay Wain, Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Ground, and The Leaping Horse. Visit Constable: The Making of a Master
Ming: 50 Years That Changed China (British Museum, until 5 January). China was a global superpower in the early 15th century. The Ming family ruled with a rod of iron and Chinese artists created some of the most beautiful objects and paintings ever made. Exquisite porcelain, furniture and paintings make this a must-see exhibition. Ming: 50 Years That Changed China
Rembrandt: The Late Works (The National Gallery, until 18 January). Rembrandt had a turbulent later life but it produced some of his finest works. I’ve yet to read a bad review of this exhibition. Don’t miss it. Rembrandt: The Late Works