Old and new at Art 18/21

Ian CollinsAncient and modern can work a treat in the world of art, as one of Norwich's newest galleries is fast proving in an antique setting at the heart of Tombland. IAN COLLINS profiles Art 18/21.Ian Collins

Ancient and modern can work a treat in the world of art, as one of Norwich's newest galleries is fast proving in an antique setting at the heart of Tombland. IAN COLLINS profiles Art 18/21.

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Norwich has long played a pioneering role in the art world, so how fitting that a still-newish gallery venture should span the centuries and take our fabulous creativity forward.

And the founder, art historian Laura Williams, building links between makers and markets, is also spanning the artistic planet from East Anglia to South Asia.

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'The gallery has quickly become public property,' she says. 'I had not realised the quality and reputation of contemporary artists working in the region and, more to the point, local artists needing national and international representation.'

The connecting of places and periods is shown in the gallery's unlikely but actually inspired location - in the basement of one of Norwich's most historic buildings.

Augustine Steward House on Tombland is a merchant house dating from the 1530s, and uneven settlement has long caused the timber-framed structure to twist into a crazily listing building.

There is an antiques emporium on the ground-floor and the Norfolk and Norwich Festival offices are upstairs, but the bright white vaulted undercroft - with sealed tunnels leading to the cathedral - is now a prime venue for artists old and new, local and global.

And then there's the name. Art 18/21 is not a dating agency for arty young people but a space for artworks from the 18th century - when Norwich was first establishing itself as a key centre for British painting - to date.

Opening her gallery in 2008, Laura Williams - who studied at UEA, has dealt pictures in London and now lives with her family in an old farmhouse near Wymondham - began boldly with striking mixed exhibitions and a retrospective show for the seaside surrealism of Sheringham's Peter Baldwin.

Last autumn she previewed 30 etchings from the new Springs Fireplace Road suite - a trans-Atlantic collaboration between veteran New York print-maker Maurice Payne and Norfolk Pop Artist Colin Self.

Now she has just launched an exhibition called Inspired Women Artists - featuring four recent and current Waveney Valley near-neighbours who have made major marks.

Constructivist Margaret Mellis (1914-2009), latterly of Syleham and finally of Southwold, was famously encouraged by Ben Nicholson and a mentor to the teenage Damien Hirst. Her highly innovative abstract paintings and driftwood reliefs hang in public collections including the Tate.

Margaret Thomas, born in 1916, continues to paint waterscapes and interior scenes from her attic studio high above the Waveney with one of the best views over East Anglia.

Emily Gwynne-Jones has been an artist all her life (being the daughter of distinguished painters Allan and Rosemary Gwynne-Jones) and, from her base at Fressingfield, has developed a very sensitive and singular response to the rural world around her.

And Tessa Newcomb, who paints in Wenhaston and Southwold, and is the subject of a recent monograph by the East Anglian writer Philip Vann, has emerged from the shadow of her late, great mother, Mary, as an artist of great originality and popularity. Her pictures are like short stories, with strange and secret narratives.

Then, after three sell-out shows in Tombland, Laura Williams is set to launch the young Norwich abstract artist Alec Cumming in London with a show in conjunction with Alan Wheatley Art in Mason's Yard, St James's (opposite the White Cube gallery) June 4-24.

And June 9-12 she will be at the Russian, Eastern and Oriental Art Fair in London's Park Lane Hotel - showing modern and contemporary South Asian art in a shared venture with the ICA Gallery.

The newly-opened ICA is Art 18/21's partner gallery in Jaipur.

This project is going places.

t The Inspired Women Artists exhibition runs Art 18/21, Tombland, Norwich, until June 26. Open Tues 10am-4.30pm, Wed-Sat 10am-5pm. More details: 01603 763345, www.art1821.com