London’s last scene-painting workshop faces final curtain after luxury flats get go-ahead

Harkers Studio in Walworth, south-east London – under threat
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A central London scene-painting workshop that has created sets for major productions for more than a century is facing closure amid plans to convert the space into luxury flats.

Harkers Studio in Walworth, south-east London, has been used by the theatre industry to create large pieces of scenery since 1904. These have included designs for the Lyceum Theatre under Bram Stoker’s management in the early 20th century, to scenery for Kwame Kwei-Armah‘s Bob Marley musical One Love earlier this year.

Its impending closure has been described by campaigners as evidence that private developments are “killing the soul” of the capital by pushing out affordable creative workspace.

Purpose-built by scenic painter Joseph Harker in 1904 to accommodate 40ft backdrops for West End theatres, Harkers originally provided art for Henry Irving’s West End venues, including the Lyceum and Drury Lane.

Harker’s friendship with Stoker led to the latter naming a character in Dracula – Jonathan Harker – after him.

It is thought to be the last purpose-built, scene-painting room in central London still used for its original function.

In the mid-1980s the building was leased to theatrical hardware supplier Flints, which has allowed artists to continue working in the main scene-painting space.

Planning permission for six luxury flats and an office was granted in December 2016, and Flints’ lease ends in January, when it will move its operations to Deptford. Campaigners arguing for the grade II-listed building’s importance have now launched a last-ditch attempt to retain its purpose as a building that can serve the theatre industry.

On granting listed-building consent to make changes to the structure, Southwark Council said it was “no longer viable” to continue using Harkers as a painting room.

However, the campaign, started by a group of theatremakers, has initiated a petition protesting the redevelopment, which has been signed by more than 1,800 people.

It says: “As we are all too aware, the cost of space to live and work in London is through the roof. It is killing the soul of our city and the livelihood of those who reside and work in it. It cannot, and should not, continue.”

Scenic artist Grit Eckert, who is behind the campaign, told The Stage: “It’s really tricky in London these days. We have very few places [to work] and they get pushed and pushed further away.

“It’s not recent, this has been happening for more than 20 years, but it feels like it’s coming to a head now. It’s urgent.”

She questioned why Southwark Council did not fight harder to find a use for the studio other than residential.

The deputy mayor for culture, Justine Simons, responded to the petition to say she was “really saddened that this wonderful historic facility will be lost to the creative industries”.

However, she added that as planning permission has already been granted, there is little chance the space will be saved.

Throughout its life, the studio has also hosted the creation of scenery such as those David Hockney designed in the 1970s for Glyndebourne, to which it provided sets for around 20 years.

Harker’s great-great-granddaughter, the actor Susannah Harker, told The Stage: “I have a very close and fond connection [to the studio] and I’m devastated that these buildings are going.”