Rankin has turned his penthouse into an art gallery – and you can stay there

Josh Sims

15 October 2021

The celebrity photographer spent lockdown transforming his three-bedroom Kentish Town property into part art gallery, part rental living space

"This whole project isn’t about creating some kind of Airbnb venture but a multi-purpose space that might appeal to a certain type of person"

15 October 2021 | Josh Sims

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 had a revelation over lockdown,” says photographer and art director John Waddell – better known by his middle name, Rankin. “I haven’t put my camera down for 30 years, and I thought lockdown would make me do so for a while. But it actually didn’t. I picked it up all the time. It’s a cliché, but lockdown made me realise that I’d take photographs even if I wasn’t paid to do so – and that I can look at my own work and actually enjoy it.”

Ensconced in his country house in Suffolk, taking lots of pictures of his dogs (“I’m a bit obsessed,” he admits), lockdown also encouraged Rankin to reappraise a project he’d long put off – the much-delayed renovation of his 3,000 sq ft, three-bedroom penthouse in Kentish Town.

And so, with his professional life as a commercial photographer on hold due to the pandemic, Rankin used the time to repurpose his London home of 12 years into a salon-cum-gallery-cum-event space – one that you can now book to stay in overnight.  

It’s a stepping stone towards the opening of a full-blown gallery space, says Rankin, as the penthouse will also display an exhibition of Rankin’s personal work, with photography changing every three months. 

The launch display is An Exploding World – 25 dramatic images of dandelion seeds, shot by Rankin over lockdown. This will be followed in January by a selection of 200 portraits from Performance, a current project in partnership with the Mayor of London and the Society of London Theatre, which sees Rankin document the recovery of the West End, and its stars.

“I love a deadline so having to create work to show in the penthouse has been a strong motivation,” says the 55-year-old. “I don’t ever put my own work up in my house because that just feels weird, but this is also about me trying to find new ways of exhibiting what I do.”

The penthouse, which has double-height ceilings and 180-degree views across London from Hampstead Heath to the London Eye, was originally designed in 2008/9 by architect Trevor Horne and has now been refreshed – with new flooring, white walls and display units featuring a series of flowers in bell jars – to provide more of a gallery feel. 

That’s in keeping with Rankin’s preferred stripped-back aesthetic, and is in line with a deal he made his wife when they moved in: that if he got to decorate the flat, she got to decorate their Georgian home in Suffolk, “which is more like a comfy country house – not that it's sterile in the penthouse,” Rankin laughs. “I think she got the better deal.”

Rankin has also produced a number of experimental decorative and interior objects – plates and chairs, with perhaps mirrors, rugs and tables to follow – that carry some of his imagery. These may be developed into a commercial line in time for a retrospective of his work for Dazed & Confused, initially planned for this year but now rescheduled to be shown in Belgium in 2023.

“Artists have done this before and without much success – you have to get the taste level right. You can’t just stick a photograph on an interiors object and assume it will sell,” says Rankin. “But I have a mug with David Bailey’s photo of the Kray twins on it which I love and use every day, so this is a way of dipping my toe into that kind of thing. For me, this whole project isn’t about creating some kind of Airbnb venture but a multi-purpose space that might appeal to a certain type of person – like those who collect my work. For the moment, it will only be my own work on display. It’s a Rankin experience.”

Rankin has only slept in the penthouse once since the renovation. “And it’s still a bit weird,” he laughs. “A lot of commercial photography is more craft – it’s something any good photographer might do for a client. But even if you’re using the same muscle, so to speak, your own work is your own ideas. There’s no audience in mind and that makes for a very different experience.

“I think lockdown helped me turn a corner in being able to make more of a deal of my own work. I look at it and now think to myself ‘yeah, I’d have that on my wall’.”

And now Rankin actually does.

Read more: In conversation with celebrity photographer Andy Gotts

All images by Rankin Photography Ltd. For more information on how to book the penthouse, email info@penthousesalon.co.uk.