In 2005, Hannah Watson was a 25-year-old art history graduate living in Venice and interning at the Guggenheim. She had heard about an independent art book publisher named Trolley Books in London, and found herself at a dinner one evening, at the home of its ebullient founder, Gigi Giannuzzi.
That evening would shape the next 16 years of her career, an unconventional introduction to Giannuzzi's vibrant world. “When I walked into that dinner I just felt immediately at home. My work environment in the museum world had been mostly expats and here was a group of misfits and real Venetians; I knew this was my tribe.”
Giannuzzi offered her a job working for Trolley Books in London. At the time the publisher's office was on Redchurch Street, Shoreditch – Giannuzzi would often install a makeshift table outside on the street and serve up pasta and prosecco from the vineyard in the town where Trolley’s books were printed. “It didn't matter who you were, you were always welcomed,” Hannah says. That has been her ethos as a publisher, gallery director and curator too.
Shoreditch was still affordable for emerging artists in 2005, and Trolley was embedded in the thick of east London's active art scene, publishing books on both famous figures and unknowns. Works by renowned photojournalist Philip Jones Griffiths, and the first books of Alex Majoli, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, as well as Iphgenia Baal's novel The Hardy Tree, which was nominated for the Granta best young British novelist award.
The Redchurch Street space soon evolved into a platform for exhibitions for the artists Trolley was publishing books on, and with her background in museums and galleries, Hannah worked alongside Giannuzzi to develop the gallery side of the business. They gave many artists their first solo show over the years; it was a natural step to start representing some of them, including the painter Boo Saville, sculptor Juliana Cerqueira Leite (who Hannah met at the artist's degree show at the Slade) and Stephanie Quayle. All three artists are still with the gallery today.
By 2010, it was time to move out of Shoreditch. Hannah had been to an opening in Fitzrovia, central London, one evening and fell in love: “It was this beautiful, untouched pocket of London, still with all its pubs intact – in fact the area was named after the Fitzroy Tavern. It has this rich history of writers, artists and musicians, and that bohemian background and the fact it was off the beaten track made it really exciting.”
Giannuzzi and Hannah found a space spanning two floors in an historic building at 59 Riding House Street, with an arts and crafts mosaic and the name TJ Boulting engraved on the front. It would come to be the premises for their new venture: a gallery they would aptly call TJ Boulting. Their first show was during Frieze Art Fair in October 2011, a heady affair with a collective of 11 Icelandic artists. “The space wasn't finished yet but we had this massive party with a Prosecco fountain,” Hannah says.
The next show was meant to be a definitive moment for TJ Boulting, a serious exhibition on the late, great Alighiero Boetti. It had been in the works for some time, Giannuzzi working with Boetti's widow. However, half way into the show's run their world was turned upside down when Giannuzzi was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. “The rug was pulled out from underneath us. We went from 'this is our moment' to tragedy, and everything fell away after that." Hannah reflects. Giannuzzi passed away on Christmas Eve, 2012. “I was left on my own with the legacy of what he’d started – and what we had started together.”
Hannah still runs Trolley Books, as well as heading up TJ Boulting gallery, looking after an expanding roster of artists and curating exhibitions. “It is hard as it's just me, it's not an easy business, but it's a beautiful world to be in, and everyone in it is very passionate about it.”
She now represents artists Juno Calypso, Maisie Cousins, Haley Morris-Cafiero and Poulomi Basu. Her current roster is all women artists who share a rebellious spirit and a refusal to be pigeon-holed in the art world, a value Hannah upholds in the way she runs the gallery too.
Hannah has developed not only an engaging and diverse programme but a community around the gallery. “That's very important to me, I wouldn't want to create a place where people didn't want to come,” she says. “I remember the thrill when people started referring to the gallery as TJ, which gives the sense of familiarity and ease with the place.” Among the many projects Hannah is involved in is Women in Photography, a professional support network of artists, curators, collectors, writers and other arts professionals who meet regularly to discuss issues in the field but also to enjoy each other's company; an annual pool party in Arles during the photo festival is just one of the events they organise.
Hannah is also chair of The Fitzrovia Chapel, a Grade II listed building a stone’s throw from the gallery that was once part of the Middlesex Hospital, and is now a community and arts centre.
As for the artists she's drawn to, Hannah says, “I can't put my finger on it, but I see so many things, so after a while you just know when someone's got something original to say. I don't look for something that's a pretty picture or is highly stylised, there has to be more to it than aesthetics.”
As the gallery heads into its second decade, Hannah's mission remains steadfast, and TJ Boulting will no doubt remain one of London's most daring and inviting places to see art. “I want to be somewhere where you can make unusual discoveries. That's what excites me.”
Interview by Charlotte Jansen.
Photographs by Dunja Opalko.
Hannah wears our Painted Patchwork Organic Cotton Pyjamas.