Judith Carlton, Director of Southwark Park Galleries (Cafe Gallery & Dilston Grove), has the sweetest Geordie accent that she combines with an infectious laugh that I heard a lot in our time together. Even when talking of her family not being able to afford the fine art degree she so wanted to do it sounded like a tale of joy and hope as she told her sad tale: ‘I had to find a cheaper degree that involved books,’ she rallies with an upbeat smile, ‘so I did a philosophy degree that specialised in aesthetics – the philosophy of art,’ writes Michael Holland.  

Judith remembers being ‘dragged kicking and screaming through museums and galleries’ as a child, but as she grew older she realised that this was a world where she wanted to work. She did a lot of drawing as a young girl but reveals that she originally wanted to be a dentist: ‘‘My dentist had a good art collection and loads of money so I thought, right, that’s a nice life… But I can’t add up or do science so that was never gonna happen,’ she adds with chuckles. 

She found jobs in the once detested museums and galleries: ‘I’d volunteer my time so I could be in them.’ But these places that others see as destinations for their cultural aspects have other meanings for Ms Carlton. She sees free public spaces as somewhere to go for peace and quiet, an escape from the rush of life: ‘You can be having a dreadful day but you can enter a gallery or museum and have the choice to think, or not think, you can just stare at something, listen to something, or just sit and do nothing – It’s restorative… It’s what my mum did with me because there wasn’t many options for a single parent… It’s why I will always fight so strongly for free places like these.’ She says this with a sweep of her hand introducing the Southwark Park Gallery we are sitting in.

Judith has been in the director role for 4 years, taking over from Ron Henocq who had the position since the Bermondsey Artists’ Group was founded in the early 80s. But she wasn’t some intrusive outsider turning up for interview with a philosophy degree, she had worked with Matt’s Gallery, a long-time collaborator with the gallery; she had already produced several exhibitions in Dilston Grove, and it was the first gallery she had been taken to when she first moved down from Newcastle to South London: ‘I’m not saying this for effect, but I fell in love with it straight away. It’s still my favourite gallery so working here is a dream.’

Henocq’s were big shoes to step into and it wasn’t always easy, but, Judith declares, ‘the team and the audiences have all been supportive, there is a lovely board of trustees, and Ron’s been amazing… The Bermondsey Artists’ Group has been like a family as well.’

Changes had to be made by the new director, with more fundraising needed to commission large-scale artwork, and exhibitions extended to justify the time put in to creating the art: ‘More people get to see the work, the artists get longer to show their work, and more conversations are generated from the exhibitions so they live on and continue to inform.’ Have the changes worked? ‘Our visitor numbers have climbed up and up every year,’ she replies with a thumbs up.

The gallery has always supported emerging artists who often get overlooked, plus artists of any age or background that show potential: ‘We don’t care a monkeys if you’ve been to art school or not, if we feel more people should see your work we’ll show ya, and support ya and fundraise to pay for new work by ya – and we’ll show your older works too…’ All this in her bouncy North Eastern lilt made it more real, like a revolutionary calling all artists to arms while standing on her desk with fist aimed skyward. Not really, but that pose would have been perfect. ‘We want to champion people and let them shine, we want to allow them to dream big,’ she continued before talking about how Jonathan Baldock benefitted from the gallery’s support, enabling him to become an internationally recognised artist.

I got a rundown on the many aspects of the two Southwark Park sites: the gardening projects, the schoolchildren that come, the bothy built in the garden, the warm welcome for visitors, the book collection to honour Ada Salter, and how dogs are encouraged to visit. In fact, that encouragement has now led to an exhibition for and about our canine companions.

Judith has an affinity with dogs and sees certain dogs at certain times in the park as she comes and goes, and can tell the time by their routines. She understands that clocks are set by dogs as they have to be fed and walked at certain times. She also knows the local dogs’ names, but not of the owners – She knows them as Buddy’s mum, or Banjo’s mum, etc.

Consequently, an idea has been simmering for some time now since Judith decided that because dogs are such a big feature of the park, then the gallery had to reflect that. So the big summer exhibition is Dog Show and they are the stars. 

Many artists and curators chose their favourite dog-related art; Martin Creed and David Shrigley are involved; Vic Reeves got in touch pleading to be included, and Lucien Freud’s Pluto makes an appearance. ‘It’s the most fun we’ve had putting this show together so we plan to have it bi-annually now.’ 

Ideas for a future dog show are afoot and a calendar of the 12 most good-looking dogs is very likely. ‘We want to showcase the animals of Southwark Park so we will have a dog photo booth, theatre for dogs and a poodle installation,’ she adds laughing with the pure joy that Dog Show brings her. 

As I left the gallery Judith shouted after me: ‘And don’t forget, I’ll be talking about the exhibition on Jo Good’s Barking Hour on July 18th (BBC London 94.9FM – 2.30pm)

Dog Show is on at Southwark Park Galleries, 1 Park Approach, Southwark Park, London, SE16 2UA until 8 September 2019. Thur – Sun 11pm – 5pm. Admission: Free. Phone: 020 7237 1230