Illustrations for The Club by Edu Fuentes

THE INSIDE TRACK • September 2023

The big BA art crawl: London lounges

Freddie Reidy
Freddie Reidy

Club correspondent 

Did you know British Airways is the proud holder of a world-renowned art collection?

For more than two decades, we’ve amassed more than 2,000 artworks, marking a world first for the airline industry. The collection, built up with the help of curatorial practice Artwise and found in our lounges across the globe, is intended to foster a unique and creative atmosphere for when you travel with us.

“The (self-created) brief was to procure a collection that was not traditionally ‘a corporate art collection’,” recalls Laura Culpan, of Artwise. “And it wasn’t something that had to make literal reference to air travel, either. Most of all, we wanted to support the then young emerging artists (the likes of Tracey Emin, Peter Doig, Damien Hirst and Chris Ofili), who have since gone on to gain international acclaim.”

Many pieces within the collection were specially commissioned for British Airways, and they often took on function as well as form. Before the opening of Terminal 5 in 2008, our operations were housed at Terminal 1. “There was an architectural issue with T1’s First lounge – a massive unsightly air vent in the middle of the room,” explains Culpan. Since the vent couldn’t be removed, the Artwise team was tasked to come up with a creative solution in 2004. “We invited Droog Design to tackle the challenge and the outcome was a spectacular Champagne bar that was recognised and awarded many accolades,” Culpan adds.

One of the most familiar installations is Cloud by the UK design house Troika, especially commissioned as a focal point at the Richard Rogers-designed Terminal 5. The piece, which customers heading toward our T5A Galleries South Lounges can see towering above the escalators of the main atrium, is still one of Culpan’s favourite works in the collection. “The space in the atrium of the stairway was originally going to be allocated to a chandelier, but fortunately we were given the room and the budget to commission this award-winning and much-admired kinetic sculpture,” she says.

The cloud-shaped sculpture comprises mechanical flip dots that turn in an automated sequence in a nod to the historic mechanical display boards that once filled the world’s airports and stations. Cloud is the first time the technology was applied to a curved surface. The movement of the dots animates the artwork, located above two escalators, and replicates your journey from the hustle and bustle of the earthly realm into a lofty serenity above the clouds.

Other pre-eminent art hails from Tracey Emin in Gatwick’s airport lounges. She’s now recognised as one of Britain’s greatest contemporary artists but, back when Artwise’s curatorial journey first started, the Margate native was only known by art aficionados. Mass acclaim arrived during her breakthrough appearance in the Charles Saatchi collection’s Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997.

Today, in our Galleries First Lounge at London Gatwick, you can spy Oh Wise Owl - It’s Worth It and Is It Me Out There, two of Emin’s prolific pencil sketches, with the former emblazoned by a handwritten scrawl: ‘I mean do you love me’. Emin has since returned to pencil sketching and the written word in her latest works. She recently told the Tate Modern: “I think in words. I write a lot. For me the title of a drawing is as important as a drawing.”

If you are lucky enough to find yourself fireside in the Concorde Room at Terminal 5, meanwhile, gaze up above the fireplace at our Coat of Arms. Watch it for a moment longer and (no, it’s not jet lag or perhaps an indulgent cocktail taking its toll) the stone relief begins to move....

The bespoke piece by artist Christopher Pearson marries traditional motifs and contemporary digital techniques. It depicts the winged lion and the winged stallion, Pegasus, which have since come to life in another form: as Peggy and Leon, our resident Skyflyers. There’s even a dash of English wit to Pearson’s piece, with the appearance of an umbrella and some incoming rain.

Pearson repeats his futuristic trickery with Oak Seasons, a pleasing blend of form and function. The laser-etched glass panels help to create intimate spaces within the T5 Galleries First Lounge, while animating English oaks through all four seasons. Look closely within the branches, though, and you may be surprised by surreal lightbulbs suspended from branches or even a leaf depicting a map of the UK.

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In Gatwick’s First Lounge, meanwhile, you’ll find a series of square artworks by Chris Ofili, who burst on to the art scene in 1998 by winning the Turner Prize. He dazzled the art world at the time with his unbridled use of colour and materials. His award-winning entry even utilised elephant dung, a first and probably last for the famed competition, responsible for launching the careers of several celebrated artists, such as Gilbert & George, Damien Hirst and Rachel Whiteread. Our Ofili pieces are from a slightly more traditional series of New York-inspired etchings, depicting many of the city’s iconic neighbourhoods and buildings.

In its Galleries Club Lounge, John Golding’s piece Untitled I (not, it appears, a subscriber to the value Emin places on titles) puts light rather than subject at the heart of the work. Here, streaks of watercolour punctuated by gold pigment give Golding’s piece an ethereal quality and fluidity of movement. 

Then theres Paul Huxley, who – no stranger to exhibiting work in busy transport hubs – famously designed giant abstract tile murals at King’s Cross St Pancras Underground station. To Huxley’s dismay, these were replaced with what he called white “lavatory tiles” during renovation work in the early 2000s, but the artist can rest easy in the knowledge that his anti-monocentric masterpiece Sidekick remains in pride of place in the Galleries Club Lounge for you to enjoy.

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