In May 2021, I reported in Apollo how then Housing Minister Luke Hall granted US investment firm Raycliff Capital planning permission to redevelop the Whitechapel Bell Foundry into a luxury club hotel. Plans involved demolishing the 1980s industrial space to create a grand entrance hall and turning much of the ground floor into a cafe and an area where small bells would be made as part of a false tourist attraction (this was added to help obtain planning permission and may also have contributed to making the system economically unfeasible). It seemed to be the bitter end to what had been a five-year campaign to preserve the building as a working foundry, part of the fabric of local East End life and a remarkable, if not unique, survival. 18th century London craftsmanship. .
Luckily, that didn’t work. Raycliff Capital must have had a change of heart during the pandemic, perhaps weary of the long campaign and recognizing, as pointed out during the public inquiry, that there are now several other hotels in the area. And so the building is back on the open market, listed with Pilcher, a major Savile Row commercial real estate agency with a history of leasing buildings to art galleries.
During the planning survey, an alternative scheme was presented to the planning inspector to demonstrate how it would be possible to retain the whole site as a working foundry under the auspices of Re-Form, a charity which has successfully demonstrated, with Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, how a historic site can operate in a semi-commercial way, retaining traditional methods of manufacture as a form of living history. Re-Form offered to work in partnership with the Factum Foundation, the charitable arm of Factum Arte, an artist-making company based in the suburbs of Madrid, which has experience in making traditional craftsmanship financially viable. by working with contemporary artists.
Since the proposed concept successfully demonstrated how the building can still function as a foundry, the planning inspector should not, in retrospect, have granted Raycliff permission to change use. A happy outcome would be that Tower Hamlets, as the local planning authority, and Historic England can now recognize those plans which would see the Bell Foundry retain its historic character in both use and architecture, rather than as a be turned into a hotel or made antiseptic by becoming an art gallery – although the latter might be preferable as it would involve less disruption of the historic fabric.
The Factum Foundation has long been interested in the preservation of traditional craftsmanship and their enhancement through digital technologies. As part of the initial proposed scheme, they established the London Bell Foundry, a non-profit organization designed to advance the cause of bell making by contemporary artists. The organization has already produced a bell designed by Grayson Perry which was displayed at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition this year and in the Worshipful Company of Founders livery room at the annual Open House festival. During the planning inquiry, the solicitor representing Raycliff dismissed this plan as financially unfeasible, but the London Bell Foundry has ambitious plans for its future artist commissions backed by the expertise of Nigel Taylor, the former director of the foundry’s bell production.
The best solution would be for Raycliff to sell the property to the London Bell Foundry. If a price can be agreed, it would be possible for the foundry to resume operations quickly. The fabric of the building is still in good working order and would soon regain its light industrial character, perhaps with the restoration of some of the original equipment. The organization also hopes to use the rooms at the front of the building as an archive documenting the history of bell making, which would be accessible to the public.
Surely it would be better if this historic building became just another commercial art gallery.
Charles Saumarez Smith is a London-based art historian. He was Secretary and Chief Executive of the Royal Academy (2007–18) and Director of the National Gallery (2002–07).