I 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.
All images by Rankin Photography Ltd. For more information on how to book the penthouse, email [email protected].