From lawyer to gallery owner

Laura Cartledge meets someone who decided to take the giant leap from lawyer to gallery owner.

Thursday, 20th April 2017, 5:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 7th June 2018, 6:19 pm

Finding it hard to purchase artwork might sound like a strange confession from a gallery owner, but thankfully Ashley Cordwell only struggles when it comes to his own.

“I probably think too objectively,” he explains. “I think would that work with the collection, is it too similar to so-and-so. I think it is key, when it comes to the gallery, to buy good artwork that you might not buy yourself.”

Being able to see the black and white in a colourful industry is arguably something Ashley honed while qualifying to be a lawyer.

Ashley Cordwell's Workhorse

And while the career jump might seem to be a huge leap, speaking to Ashley you are soon left with little doubt that it was always going to be - no matter how he tried.

“I wanted to go away from the art world which my parents had been in, I had seen how all consuming running your own business could be and I wanted to go down another path,” he reveals. “I think that goes back to school days. We had people visiting to give talks and I liked the sound of law.”

Ashley studied at Durham, qualifying last August, but says he soon felt he ‘would have been shoehorning myself into a department rather than joining one I was really in love with’.

Then, despite planning to be a lawyer for five to 10 year at least, the death of his mum, his role model, made him reconsider.

Ashley's mum on the gallery stall in 1979

“There was a personal reason that made me think lets do this now. My mum passed away at the start of last year. It was the kick I needed to do something I really wanted to do,” he admits, “but it was all very unknown - packing in a job.

“At the time I was living in London and the set up costs curtailed. I thought of coming back to this location. I grew up in Loxwood and Petworth has always been somewhere people come to get things for their houses,” adds Ashley. “There are antique shops, furniture shops and now three galleries.”

Coming home saw Ashley reconnect with his roots in more ways than one by taking over the reins of the business his parents had established in the 1980s.

The Forest Gallery, which is now found at Lombard Street, Petworth, started as a market stall selling ‘framed, little paintings, for £5’ before getting premises in Dorking and then expanding to Guildford and Bramley.

Ashley’s dad, who he jests has ‘not done very well at being retired’ has also been on hand.

“He likes a project,” Ashley confesses. “He was an architect so he has been really helpful.”

Which is just as well, as there was a lot of work to do.

“The first few months were the hardest, we completed on September 9 and I gave myself a tight deadline as we wanted to be open by Christmas. We opened at the very end of November and the gallery wasn’t hung until 3am on the morning of that day,” reveals Ashley. “I did all sorts, I did the plumbing and some electric work - some more successful than others.

“I cut a pipe at one point and was shouting for people to come help. The water was hitting the ceiling it was that bad. But they couldn’t hear me because the radio was on... that was the end of my plumbing career.

“It was a big wake up call but it has made carrying on with the business easier. I feel like we have been through the worst,” he smiles. “I put all my savings into the stock we have now, which motivates you. There isn’t a Monday when you don’t feel like bothering.”

All the effort, hours and risk taking seems to have paid off however and Ashley is proud to state ‘all the locals seem to love the place’.

“People seem to be amazed by how bright and fresh the pieces are,” he continues. “We always try to find pieces that are under £500 or £1,000 and specialise in original paintings people like that they can afford.

“The first thing I try to ascertain is if they have seen something specific or if they are just having a nosy. I try not to be too stuffy about it. Lots of people come in and say I don’t know much about art, which can be my favourite thing,” explains Ashley, adding that it mirrors his own approach.

“I look at the work first. It is more finding things people will love for their homes rather than the details of where they have exhibited,” he says. “When you are choosing artwork you never know what the reaction will be, I like to think it is something I have learned - possibly by osmosis by being in the gallery growing up.”

To find out more about the gallery, visit

This first appeared in etc Magazine’s April edition out now.