The Artful Pelican: Lee Road’s art gallery that helps the homeless

The Artful Pelican
There’s more to the Artful Pelican than meets the eye…
Fresh from revealing Greenwich Council’s push to become an organ donor borough, 853’s special columnist MERCURY MAN shines a light on a very special art gallery on the Lee Road…

I’ve always been a big believer in the Dalai Lama’s aphorism that, loosely translated, says: “Always try and feed your soul at the same time as feeding your face.”

Mercury Man logoIt’s not one of his best, I think you’ll agree. But it’s definitely one of those that can work well enough in practice.

You’ve probably got your own examples of this adage. I’d love to hear about them, but for the moment let me tell you about a couple of places where you can definitely double up spiritually and culinarily.

I’m talking about 143 Lee Road, SE3 9DJ, home of the Artful Pelican art gallery, and the Euro Café right next door at 141. They say the best things come in twos, but I’ve never quite known who “they” are, and… (Get on with it – Ed).

You might have noticed both establishments from upstairs on the 202 bus (I certainly did, being a trained observer). Or what might have caught your eye as a pedestrian was the artwork toilet roll in the Artful Pelican window display featuring President Trump’s face on it (sold out in no time, apparently).

Spotted or not, the gallery is well worth a visit. Why? Good question.

Well, the main and heart-lifting aim of the Artful Pelican is to help the homeless. I’ll type that again, using capitals in case anyone missed it: HELP THE HOMELESS.

Yes, this art gallery just up from Lee Green (heading for Blackheath) isn’t there to make visitors feel artistically inadequate or painfully potless. No, it’s a non profit-making venture where at least 30 per cent of every sale – or every penny – goes to those who, in the words of Clarence “Frogman” Henry, ain’t got no home.

The place is run by one David Coombe. Now, I’m not a betting man (oh, yes you are – Ed) but I happened upon David’s jolly demeanour one Monday afternoon at the Ladbrokes near Lee station, just as they were trotting to the post at Plumpton.

At first, being a trained observer, I took him for an estate agent with a borrowed heart. Soon, however, I was in possession of more or less a full CV….

David Coombe
Meet the boss: Artful Pelican owner David Coombe
David, now 58, was born and brought up in Lee. He later spent a year in Westminster, where he met his first wife, and in 1981 they moved to Texas to run a reinsurance business (insuring insurers) and, much more interestingly, start a livestock agency dealing with racehorses.

Now he was talking. “I owned a couple of good horses and used to race them at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.”

One of them won a big race and David received the trophy from the mother of Bill Clinton, a prominent politician at the time, and spent much of the day with the Clintons.

He was tickled when Mum said to him over a cuppa: “I’d love to go to the English Derby but now that Bill’s taken this job, what chance have I got?”

David moved back to Blighty in 1994, got divorced, remarried, got divorced again (he’s with a lovely lady at the moment but, as we went to press, there was no sign of nuptials) and went “full time into the charity sector”.

It was nothing new. His father Don  had started the Coombe Trust way back in 1957 and it became a registered charity in 1963 (A piece full of facts for a change – Ed).

“We have holiday homes at Westgate-on-Sea and thousands of families from Greenwich and Lewisham have benefited from them over the years,” says David. “Then, about 12 years ago. I started Street Souls for the homeless at street level.”

As well as doing an Orwell and befriending down-and-outs in Putney and Lambeth, David wanted his sons Benjamin and Oliver (now 19 and 17) to find out what life was like for “real people” without money or mobiles. “I wanted them to do compassionate things and we haven’t really stopped.”

In the early days they’d provide maybe a dozen people with food, sleeping bags, clothing and toiletries. But these days – thanks to detailed planning by this government and tireless activism from the Bullingdon Club – homeless numbers have “gone through the roof”.

David tells me: “Now we see 150 every time we go out. We’re non-religious but we start at St Stephen’s Church, Westminster, twice a month and by Westminster Cathedral once a month. We do anything we can to make people’s lives a little bit better. We’ve been doing it for a long time now and I can’t foresee us ever stopping.

“I think it’s shocking what we’ve got in 2017 but I’m an eternal optimist. I’m a Charlton Athletic fan so I have to be.”

David – who opened the Artful Pelican gallery (open from noon Wednesdays to Saturdays) two and a half years ago – was doing his talking over a full English at the Euro Café next door, run in warm and welcoming style by “Harry” and his wife, Joanna.

Euro Cafe
There’s a friendly welcome at the Euro Cafe next door
The food at breakfast and lunch – I recommend the Spanish omelette with salad (You mean chips – Ed) – is universally excellent, the coffee top class and, with just about every top sporting, musical and film icon covering the walls, you don’t have to send for an ambiance.

Mercury Man logoSo there you are. Get there. Feed your soul and feed your stomach. And thank the ever-smiling Dalai Lama for the, er… (Dictum? – Ed).

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3 comments

  1. With characteristic style and humour underpinning an important message, MM uncovers a tiny pocket of SE London that’s doing amazing work few of us would have known about. Thanks!

  2. Huge thanks to MM and 853 for a wonderful article. Do try and visit our gallery, should you find something you like and decide to buy, uplifted by the knowledge that a minimum of 30% of the purchase price helps London’s homeless through our homeless initiative Street Souls. Consider joining our Street Souls crew. We distribute on the 1st, 3rd Friday of each month. We provide nutritious food .A huge amount of clothing and items for personal care. A listening ear and compassion ,each helping to make our homeless friends lives just a little more tolerable. Joining us may change your life and definitely will change theirs. Thank you x

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