Artistic licence

by Jonathan Whiley

It’s achingly of its time; an effortlessy cool neighbourhood retreat in the heart of London that exudes enough soul to give Marvin Gaye a good run for his money.
I, like many, heard about the Artist Residence on the grapevine (ahem). This boutique hotel near Victoria Station has a buzzy restaurant and cocktail bar and has attracted generous praise from the likes of GQ and Time Out.
Its restaurant, Cambridge Street Kitchen, is a casual, contemporary affair. Breakfast includes the ubiquitous avocado on rye, lunch is light and classic (think chicken caesar salad) while the evening fare is more adventurous (halibut and Avruga caviar with sea vegetables and champagne velouté).
At basement level, the Clarendon Cocktail Cellar is surely one of this city’s best hideaways. Exposed brickwork, red leather bar stools and a mere smattering of soft lighting ensure a speakeasy-style setting that captures the imagination.
The cocktail menu is innovative and potent; bar manager Stephen Rue’s latest creative collection is inspired by classic films. The Titanic, for example, is served in a glass dominated by a giant piece of ice.
All this – including the chance to play table tennis in one of the basement rooms – is the figurative lovechild of a 21st century millenial. Justin Salisbury’s decision to transform this one-time Victorian boozer into a hip (or indeed hipster) haven made it the first London hotel to be affliated with his Artist Residence brand.
The original, in Brighton, has been going for eight years, there’s another in Cornwall and the latest, in Oxford, opened last month. The culmination of a deliberate lifelong dream? Not quite. Justin, at just 21, was thrown in at the deep end after his mum was involved in a serious accident in Brighton.
“It was really bad,” he says of the incident eight years ago. “She was hit by a bus and so I stopped university to be in Brighton where she was in a coma.”
Mercifully she recovered, although she still can’t move her left side particularly well. She now teaches therapy through art to children in Africa.
In short, running his mum’s guesthouse in Brighton was not the plan. It was only when he was standing on the doorstep one Saturday night and people began asking him for a room that the cogs began to whir into motion.
“I got a little bit of a buzz from that,” he says. “Of course I realised very quickly that you couldn’t sell rooms any other day apart from Saturday night.” For the first three years he was spinning plates; studying for a finance degree in London and running the guesthouse in Brighton.
To make it “more fun”, he placed an advert on classifed site Gumtree inviting artists to stay at the hotel and “draw on the walls”. This has since become its raison d’ être; although now it’s more refined.
“It’s no longer a freefall where any artist can come,” says Justin. “As the business has developed and the kind of people staying with us has developed, the expectations of how we present the art has changed a little bit.
“We initially started with murals on the walls – we still do that a little bit in Brighton – but the artists are now relatively well known and we curate the rooms with them. Now we can take a less-is-more approach with the murals.”
A different artist exhibits work every month with Justin working closely with the Lawrence Alkin Gallery in the St Giles area between Covent Garden and Soho.
There is a vision now which was lacking when he started in Brighton. “For the first three or four years it wasn’t really run like a professional business,” he says.
“I probably spent the first three years studying very badly and running the hotel really badly and, being young, probably blaming everyone else for how things were going.”
Help arrived in the form of Channel 5 series The Hotel Inspector, in which Alex Polizzi tries to turn around the fortunes of struggling hotels and B&Bs.
“I knew it was an opportunity that might come at the price of me looking like a fool,” says Justin candidly. “But actually it turned out OK in the end because I was so young that she probably felt a little bit sorry for me.”
He has nothing but positive things to say about Alex, who taught him the value of managing expectations. “There are a few examples of where we have changed the expectations but maintained exactly the same product,” he says.
“We went from having bad reviews to having very positive ones. We had these very small rooms in Brighton, which I think at the time we were trying to make sound bigger than they were. We called them ‘tiny’ and immediately after that the reviews were very positive. It’s things like that; not overselling yourself.”
Although highly successful now, Justin doesn’t recommend juggling university work and running a guesthouse simultaneously. “It was genuinely really hard,” he says. “We’ve had some difficult times.”
On one occasion when he was starting out – with wife Charlie by his side, now a mother to his baby son – a member of staff caused chaos when she overbooked twice on a busy bank holiday weekend in Brighton.
“We had this reception room and we quickly turned it into a bedroom,” says Justin. “I went and bought a bed and just as I had done that, I had another phone call from a guest arriving that evening.”
It was another overbooking. “We called round everywhere and nowhere had any rooms and if they did they wanted about £1,000, which we would have to pay.
“So we basically had to turn our own room which we were staying in [into a guest room]. We just put this sheet up and we were next door. Then we realised we didn’t have any access to a bathroom.”
Although it’s a smooth running operation now, it still has its logistical challenges. He often catches a night train in order to make breakfast at his Cornish hotel. “We use it quite a lot,” he says. “It’s like time travel.”
His philosophy to make each hotel very accessible – and curate “places within places” – is arguably its biggest strength.
“We’re not like a chain where everything is the same,” says Justin. “Every single restaurant, every single bar, is a completely different concept. London is about all-day, café style during the day and a nice dinner menu in the evening. It’s very neighbourhood.”
The Artist Residence in Victoria has only been open a relatively short time, but it is already a big hit with locals. “It has become part of the local community and people really like it,” says Justin, with typical modesty. “I’m pleased but there are always things you want to develop.”
Artist Residence, 52 Cambridge Street