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Wapping: How baths and art intersect at the Bickerton-Grace Gallery at Stirling Eco

Grace Of London set for exhibition alongside Lisa Izquierdo at dealership on The Highway

Anne-Marie Bickerton of Bickerton-Grace Gallery
Anne-Marie Bickerton of Bickerton-Grace Gallery – image Matt Grayson

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I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because this is going to take some serious attention. In Wapping there’s an electric motorcycle dealership called Stirling Eco.

Its founder and CEO is a man called Robert Grace. 

Professionally he rose to prominence as an expert tiler and mosaic artist working at the very top of the interiors profession.

That culminated in Grace Of London, which creates decorative baths inlaid with precious metals, Swarovski crystals and the like, for those whose luxury bathing habits far exceed the means of most – think up to £100k a tub. With me so far? Good.

Robert met photographer and artist Anne-Marie Bickerton when she came to shoot one of his baths with a ballerina in it. Inspired, she created a painting based on the images she’d taken, then came up with the idea of cutting it into pieces to share the art.

In collaboration with Robert, they decided to take that idea – calling it Sentiment – and involve other artists, creating the nucleus of what’s become the Bickerton-Grace Gallery.

Its physical space, based at Stirling Eco on The Highway, has an ever-evolving display of work by the 100 artists in the Sentiment project, including Anne-Marie herself.

From March 25-April 8, however, it will host a joint exhibition of work by painter Lisa Izquierdo and some of Robert’s baths.

Robert and Lisa will display their work together
Robert and Lisa will display their work together – image Matt Grayson

Anne-Marie said: “With the Sentiment collection, an artist sends us a work, which we divide into 1,000 pieces, mount on 24-carat gold leaf and stitch a gold thread through – that’s all about connection.

“They can then be purchased, potentially connecting 100,000 people with this installation. We also invite the artists to exhibit in our space and it’s an incredibly diverse group – we have classical artists, street art, acrylic painters, pretty much everything.

“Then you have all the collaborations I do with Robert and the pieces in the Sentiment collection themselves.”

The electric bikes aren’t just a backdrop. Stirling Eco prides itself on offering artistic makeovers for its rides, some in collaboration with Sentiment artists. 

Much of the space, which is free to visit, is adorned with artworks large and small.

Anne-Marie, for example, uses the walls to create vanishing pieces that are painted over shortly after creation, with digital versions deleted and only limited edition prints surviving.

It’s an environment that feels less about selling two-wheelers and more about unbridled creativity.

“Running a gallery is really interesting,” said Anne-Marie. “I get so inspired by the other artists that are on board and it’s a bit of a love project really, because I get connected to every one of them.

“Art is an emotional response – it grabs you or it doesn’t, and it’s very personal. 

“It’s like a fire in your tummy – I really like that but I can’t explain it, like a buzz of energy – it’s a nice feeling.

“The idea of Sentiment is that if you see a piece by an artist but can’t afford it, you can still buy a piece of something they’ve created.

“With Lisa, her pieces are very dramatic, beautiful big oil paintings, and they tie in really nicely with what Robert makes – they complement each other without clashing and that’s why we’ve brought these two artists together.

“Visitors will see their work together, but also work by other artists as well.”

THE ARTISTS IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Robert with one of his baths
Robert with one of his baths – image Matt Grayson

Grace Of London – The words of Robert Grace

“I did an apprenticeship as a ceramic floor tiler and I’ve always had an artistic background, which set me aside from my peers,” said Robert.

“I pretty much won every award that was available as a City and Guilds apprentice, and by the age of 25 I was abroad fixing mosaic domes in palaces.

“I’d worked for pretty much all the royal families in the world.

“Towards the end of my tiling career, I was getting older and I was trying to think how I might use my brain rather than my brawn.

“The idea to create the baths came when a client asked me what colour she should paint her bath – it was in a £60,000 bathroom and I just thought I could create something that would turn the interior from a stunning one to a spectacular place.

The exhibition will take place at Stirling Eco
The exhibition will take place at Stirling Eco – image Matt Grayson

“She painted her bath in the end, but I went back to my workshop and thought about creating some samples.

“Then, with the the help of top refurbishment firm Grangewood, I launched them with a week-long exhibition. 

“They cost from about £50,000 but the customer is getting 35 years of experience and something that’s unique and hand-cut. I’ve made some for more than £100,000. The last one I did had over 40,000 pieces of glass.

“The bathtubs are a good match with Lisa’s art because her work is astonishing, really beautiful and also the kind of piece you could include as part of an interior design.

“It’s subtle, the colours are well-chosen and the textures are beautiful.

“I’ve worked with some of the finest interior designers in the world and, to be really good in that world, you have to understand how light falls, shapes and colours what’s in a room.

“One of the most important things is to understand how to place and decorate with pieces of art themselves.

“I’ve always been artistic and creative and this is an extension of that.”

  • Robert will show three baths at Bickerton-Grace Gallery as part of the exhibition, including the black and white Harlequin
Lisa, pictured with one of her paintings
Lisa, pictured with one of her paintings – image Matt Grayson

Lili – The words of Lisa Izquierdo

“The pieces I’ll be showing at the exhibition will be the from my Essence Of Woman collection,” said Lisa, who lives and works near Manchester.

“There are no faces, it’s more about texture, movement and dynamic. I’ve always had an interest in art. When I was very young – aged six – I would draw these elfin-like, elongated silhouettes with wings.

“I think I was inspired by strong women in my life who brought me up, like my mum and my sister.

“I have six collections, all on different subjects, but painting these images was a real way to escape when I was struggling – painting is meditative, a lovely, expressive way to cocoon myself in my little studio and put it all on canvas.

“Everyone goes through bad times and you wouldn’t appreciate the good without that.

“It was tough in my 20s, I started modelling when I was 13 and at 15 I went to Madrid on a contract and then Tokyo for a year. On the one hand I got to travel the world and it taught me a lot of lessons in life. 

Lisa will be showing pieces from her Essence Of Woman series -
Lisa will be showing pieces from her Essence Of Woman series – image Matt Grayson

“But I was in an environment at a very young age that was horrible and it scarred me. That’s why I don’t paint faces, because it’s drilled into you that you need to be a certain way.

“There were eating disorders, drug addictions – you see it all – it was exploitation of very young girls. Even now at 46, I have to be OK with eating. 

“Those experiences are part of what makes me the artist I am today.

“For me art is the release. I get really lost in painting. Sometimes I can be in the studio until four or five in the morning.

“I’ll go home, sleep and go back to the studio and discover what I’ve created, whether it’s an abstract piece or a painting of a man or a woman.

“I hope people feel uplifted when they see my work. I want it to be thought-provoking too and to feel some positive energy – it’s a bit hippy, but then that’s what I am.”

  • Lisa, who signs her work Lili, will show a selection of her oil paintings at the exhibition. 

Read more: See James Cook’s typewriter art at Trinity Buoy Wharf

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Wapping: How Stirling Eco is bringing art to the booming world of electric vehicles

Founder and CEO Robert Grace is building a moped-focused brand that’s filled with creativity and a flare

Stirling Eco founder and CEO Robert Grace – image Matt Grayson

Creativity courses through Robert Grace like the electric mopeds he designs and sells flow through the streets of London. The founder and CEO of Stirling Eco began his career in decorative ceramic tiling, rising through an apprenticeship to the pinnacle of the industry with a company – Grace Of London – that produces intricate mosaic designs using 12, 18 and 24-carat gold, other precious metals and Swarovski crystals.

So what prompted him to launch an electric vehicle company and base his operation on The Highway in Wapping? 

“Stirling Eco came about because I was asked to decorate a bike – an electric moped – about three years ago by a German company because of my reputation with gilding and ceramics and so on,” said Robert. “I said: ‘Sure, send it over’. This bike was to be decorated for a big fancy show in America and, when I got it, put it together, sat on it and tried it out, I realised there was nothing much like it in the UK.

“We actually stock that model in the showroom now – it’s called the Ridgeback. So we did a bit of product research and we were so far ahead of the curve.

“During the first lockdown, I was fortunate that I was staying for three months in Poole, in my friend’s beautiful house, 80 metres from the sea, sitting in the garden and thinking about what the world was going to be like. When you set up a business, you try to imagine how things will be in five years, but the virus turned everything on its head.

“We couldn’t really see beyond 12 months at the time, but I wanted to work out what could set us apart if we went into this market, just as I was set apart from my peers as a tile fixer by the creative component to what I was doing. We decided it would absolutely be the art side of the business that set us apart with the bikes, so we set about designing something really stylish.

“Primarily it had to be functional because people would buy it to get to and from work – it had to work correctly, but beyond that there was no reason it couldn’t be sexy and fun as well.”

The result was the Electro Ride, a low slung collection of curves evoking classic chopper motorcycles but built for modern urban riding. Powered by a 2,000W motor it boasts a 45mph top speed although comes limited to 30mph, has a range of 30 miles on a single four-hour charge and starts at £2,410 for the entry level model. 

A gilded Electro Ride with Swarovski crystals - image Matt Grayson
A gilded Electro Ride with Swarovski crystals – image Matt Grayson

 “You can buy an electric motorbike that does 70mph for 100 miles, but that isn’t the market that we’re in,” said Robert. “We want to transform the way people travel around cities – that’s the nucleus of our idea, that’s where everything begins. The components we use are pretty much standard – a moped is two wheels, handlebars and a throttle but electric vehicle technology is so fluid at the moment. The motors are getting more efficient, the batteries are lasting longer and controllers are evolving.

“So changing the motors on these to upgrade them is relatively inexpensive – it’s not like changing an engine in a car – and the maintenance on them is really simple. Really it’s just tyres and brake pads.

“That’s why we’re an art-orientated business – we can decorate bikes personally for clients and then upgrade the technology as it becomes available.” 

Walk in to Stirling Eco’s showroom and there’s little doubt that you’re at a dealer with a difference. As well as selling the Electro Ride, the company stocks a range of other electric vehicles including the Vespa-style Trento.

Part art gallery, part den for electric vehicle enthusiasts, it boasts street art murals and paintings and a red carpet area for those seduced by the glitz and glam of celebrity.

Taken as a whole it forms the perfect backdrop to the mopeds – especially the art bikes, which include one gilded in 24-carat gold and festooned with sparkling crystals, available for £25,000.

“It’s the usual analogy of being a very small fish in a very big pond because we’re competing with big brands,” said Robert. 

“If we were in the same room as them we couldn’t compete – we’d get torn apart. So that’s why we’re here on The Highway. What we’ve decided to be here is the most exotic fish in the tank and this is our aquarium. That’s why people’s eyes are drawn to us.

“We’ve got graffiti artists here, but we didn’t want the showroom to look like Camden Town, so there’s a really good objective mix of artwork here, combining the work of the Bickerton Grace Gallery, which I set up with photographer Anne-Marie Bickerton, with what we were doing with the bikes.”

Stirling Eco creative director Tee Blackwood models the Electro Ride
Stirling Eco creative director Tee Blackwood models the Electro Ride

A quick glance through Stirling Eco’s social media channels reveals a brand that’s unafraid to have a bit of fun while creating some buzz, tempting celebrities to mount its bikes and even collaborating with Ryan Reynolds’ stunt double in the Deadpool movies. 

Look beyond the hype though and there’s both a solid business case and an environmentally conscious core to the firm’s operation. 

At the time of writing London’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) is set for a significant expansion, potentially affecting millions of car owners in just over 120 days.

Robert said: “There’s a massive number of people who will, all of a sudden, have to think about paying £12.50 a day to keep their car in the zone if it doesn’t fit in with the new restrictions.

“Many of those will be two-car families where they need two modes of transport. A lot of our clients are coming in because they can’t afford to keep two cars and they’re seeing us as an alternative. They need to keep one car to visit people outside London because our bikes aren’t allowed on the motorway, but they’re looking to us for a vehicle that’s ULEZ compliant, totally tax-free and that you can ride into the City without paying the congestion charge or polluting the atmosphere.

“We’re doing things properly. You need a CBT at least to ride one of our bikes and they have to be insured. But you also get flexibility – you can take the battery out and into your house to charge it, which costs about £1 for 30 miles.

“As a company we really want to look after people. The batteries are guaranteed for 12 months and we pride ourselves on really good aftercare and like to stay in touch with our clients. We even organise rides and people are welcome to join us.

“The nice thing about these bikes is that when you pull up at the traffic lights you get people asking about them – they really turn heads.

“I’d like to share the story of a client of ours called Greg. He works for a big law firm in IT and used to get the Tube every day from Golders Green to Moorgate and used to arrive at work angry every day.

“He came in the other day and we asked him how the bike was as he’d been riding it for about two months.

“He said: ‘Rob, I arrive at work happy every day’. It was really nice to hear him say that – now in terms of the commute he’s in control, there’s no-one around him, breathing on him, that’s freedom.”

There’s a sense that Stirling Eco, which launched in 2020 is very much at the start of its journey and with a showroom filled with art and creative people it’s a space that demands attention.

As for Robert’s tiling, he’s accepted Wharf Life’s challenge to create a special edition of the Electro Ride decorated with his signature mosaics. We’ll watch this space with interest.

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