Note: This was an assessment piece written in April 2018 for QUT unit KWB116.
At Sketch London in David Shrigley’s The Gallery, afternoon tea not only surrounds itself with art, it becomes an art form in itself. The time-honoured British tradition of tea, scones and petit fours gets a dose of modern quirk; where you encounter a sensory overload of challenging artworks, toilets that resemble alien’s eggs, extraordinary, curious food, all the while wondering if you’ve taken a wrong turn at the Mad Hatter’s tea party.
An introductory passage in the menu urges you to “Enter this place with an open mind. Imagine, if you will, a painting that never dries.” What you find upon entering the sprawling Georgian townhouse is slightly unnerving — a long, dark hallway, where kooky circus music fills your ears and the heavy velvet curtains lining the walls rustle, alluding to the many goings-on behind the scenes of this multi-venue gastronomic playground. Filled with a mix of anticipation and intrigue at what’s to come — akin to seeing a show at the theatre — smiling staff greet you before leading you around a corner and into The Gallery, where the curtain is lifted and the performance begins.
Designed by India Mahdavi, The Gallery is pink — powdery, Turkish delight pink — scalloped pink velvet booths, metallic pink woodwork, a glittering copper bar-back. The monochromatic interiors could have the opposite effect of soothing if it weren’t for the 91 colourful works by artist David Shrigley that line the — you guessed it — pink walls. Imbued with a dry wit that cuts to the point of human nature, making satirical comments on everyday situations and human interactions, the pieces are a thought-provoking distraction, their tongue-in-cheek words a side dish of humor to the well-orchestrated main event: head chef Pierre Gagnaire’s interpretation of afternoon tea, where the “Why have less when you can have more?” attitude of the restaurant reaches its peak.
Seated in The Gallery, you quickly learn from the quirky aesthetic that nothing is as it seems. The first act, a spoonful of rich Oscietra caviar, is accompanied by a boiled egg and soldiers. Yet a second glance proves that it is not, in fact, an egg at all, but a 63-degree egg yolk nestled in a flavorsome “white” made from cheese mornay. The presentation of this starter is a pleasant surprise, having only expected what follows it — act two: a three-tiered tower of sandwiches and various gateaux. Each exceeds expectations, and no two morsels are the same, with the visually-stunning assemblages of flavor and texture only becoming more extraordinary as you work your way up the tower.
What appears to be a small picture book is actually the extensive tea menu, presented to you before you have time to warm your seat. Waiters resembling mechanics in their creaseless boiler suits appear, as if out of thin air, when your Shrigley-designed cup threatens to run dry. It’s only when you leave that you notice the words “Forget about it” scribbled at the bottom — three words impossible to apply to this memorable experience. Afternoon tea doesn’t end when the waiters return to whisk your tiered stand away, instead replacing it with act three: a plate of scones, warmly tucked in a cloth parcel, paired with assorted jams and clotted cream. By this point, curtain call is expected, even slightly hoped for, yet one scan of The Gallery and you know you’re not yet done — a rose-gold cart is making the rounds. Atop it sits two final cakes, as if on a parade float, of which you’re offered a Sophie’s choice between banana fudge or Victoria sponge.
With your table cleared, and only a cup of tea left, you’re able to sit back and take in your surroundings once more, surprised that after such a drawn-out experience, you still haven’t seen it all. A tiny person dressed as a French maid, for instance, pops out occasionally, her sole role apparently to sweep the floors. The string quartet in The Gallery’s corner play songs fit for a wedding — Elton John, Keane, The Beach Boys — making your heart swell as if you really were at a celebration of love, not having your senses assaulted (in the best possible way) and your expectations confounded. There’s something about The Gallery’s atmosphere that makes you feel like you’re at some kind of party. And no matter what you’re wearing, it’s guaranteed you’ll feel some of the glamour rubbing off before it’s time to go.
A trip to the bathroom after the bottomless pots of tea makes sense, yet like everything else at Sketch, these toilet cubicles are infamous, and seeing them for yourself is a non-negotiable part of the experience. Far from your typical stall, they resemble giant dinosaur eggs atop a flight of blinding white stairs, and entering one feels like entering a spaceship, albeit one where a soundtrack of crickets chirping and nature sounds plays while you relieve yourself. The mirrors at the basins distort your appearance, and if you tilt your head upwards, there is multi-coloured neon ceiling, heavily resembling a Rubik’s cube.
It’s with a heavy heart that you wander back through The Gallery, peering over your shoulder for one final look before the curtain falls and the performance ends. Yet, as you collect your coat, you also get the impression that, a bit like falling in love for the first time, while the experience would be equally as spellbinding on a second or third visit, these feelings — of joy, of being taken by surprise, of not knowing what comes next — can only truly be encountered once. Your standard, bum bag-toting tourist experience Sketch is not, and neither is the price tag attached to it. But while it might seemlike you’re only paying for some fancy cakes and scones with jam, The Gallery’s thought-provoking interpretation of afternoon tea leaves you with more than just a full stomach.