Back in February, after several hours of fascinating interviews with some amazing, interesting, people, I completed a feature for Cumbria magazine. I was pleased with it – but the magazine then didn’t want it (despite a couple of edits on my part). Out running today I decided I’d publish it here instead so that my efforts, and the time granted to me by the interviewees, at least see the light of day.
One of Cumbria magazine’s comments was that it was too subjective. However it expresses the feelings many of us – particularly perhaps the creative people and the outdoors people – share about living up here, in this truly rural part of the country (England, that is – obviously Scotland has wilder and more remote parts) so far from the traffic jams and bustle of big cities.
Sadly, Front Room will be closing in 2019, but I hope somehow someone finds a way of carrying on an ‘artists’ hub’ in the way that Nancye and Steve have started. Please follow links to see the artists’ work!
With over 8 million visitors a year it’s no surprise that the Lake District is well-known and also that people tend to associate Cumbria with the Lake District. The areas outside the National Park are relatively unknown in comparison and yet the Eden valley is a beautiful, fertile corridor which leads at its southern end into the glorious Yorkshire Dales (another National Park); the west coast has miles of unspoilt beaches, an interesting industrial past, and views out over the Irish sea; and the north-east corner of the county has Hadrian’s Wall.
Brampton is the main town for this corner of the county and not only is it situated just a couple of miles south of Hadrian’s Wall amongst stunning rugged countryside – from the Moot or the Ridge on the edge of the town you can see to Scotland, the Northern Pennines, the Lake District fells and the Solway plain, and the countryside has a wild character of its own – but it is full of surprises which are not obvious to a visitor and which only reveal themselves once you live there and start to look around and explore.
Hidden in sandstone cottages in the lanes around Brampton, or living in the centre of the town ‘hidden in clear sight’ is a wealth of talented artists and craftspeople. Some are little known locally because they exhibit further afield in the big cities, either because that is where the more affluent markets are or because they have moved to the area from those big cities and still have contacts there. But dig under the surface and it becomes clear that for decades artists have been choosing to live in this area. The landscapes around provide them with inspiration; the town is well-located and accessible for reaching further afield.
The local Howard family has been influential in the area for centuries, and notably George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle (1843-1911), was a talented artist and pre-Raphaelite. When he commissioned Philip Webb to design St. Martin’s church in Brampton, the windows were designed by his friend Burne-Jones and executed in the William Morris studio (as an aside, the only stable block Philip Webb ever designed was at the Four Gables estate on the edge of Brampton: the house being designed by Webb for the Earl’s factor). The Earl was a man who believed ‘art’ was a vital part of life which should be encouraged. He was an inspiring mentor to his grand-daughter, renowned artist Winifred Nicholson, whose home was near Lanercost and who in turn became a mentor to her grand-daughter, painter Rafaele Appleby. Rafaele still lives locally and her studio has a large panoramic window with an incredible view of the north Pennines. She says on her website “I work in my studio on Hadrian’s Wall with views of the Cumbrian fells to the south… Paintings and pastel drawings are often inspired by, but not limited to, the nature around me”.
Rafaele’s comments are echoed by many of the other artists. Painter Rachel Gibson, who has lived in the area almost 50 years after growing up in Berkshire and then studying in Newcastle, says she “loves the openness; the fells; how wild, rugged and empty the area is” and how history has become nature. Hadrian’s Wall is as much a part of the landscape as the trees and hills. She also uses nature more fundamentally with her use of pigment from Florence Mine in Egremont, West Cumbria: subtle colours of the earth also used by other artists to echo colours used by Fell shepherds or the hand prints of Elizabethan miners throughout Cumbria. In this now quiet countryside the remains of mine workings, like the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, have begun to merge back into the landscape, the noise and fuss of the industrial age no more than a whisper, revealed only by the route of disused railways and empty stone ruins at Forest Head and through Geltsdale.
An artist who lives outside Brampton in the hills of the northern Pennines is another painter, Carol McDermott: although she’s keen to point out that despite the isolation there is also a wood turner, a fine art print maker and a guitar maker in her village. Like Rachel, she moved to the area after training and living elsewhere: for her living up in the hills and being able to see the stars at night became important. Again she loves the untamed ruggedness of the area and gets much of her inspiration from the landscape, for example when walking the dog. Despite living somewhere quite remote, she says “the internet connects you to the world. I have Facebook friends in America and Germany. I don’t feel isolated at all”.
Carol expressed the view that creative people are more empathetic than most and that she’s become accustomed to ‘tuning in’ and going with the flow. For her, being a painter is her language – art speaks for her. Gillian Naylor would agree: she says that for her “the answer comes in a visual image”; that her paintings tell a story and are ‘visual philosophy’. Gillian is originally from Wasdale but made the comment that “this area pulls you in… and then you stay because it’s interesting”. She loves the feeling of connection to people from the past; the sense of being a continuation of history. Gillian is working with Rafaele Appleby and Kenyan-based Sophie Walbeoffe on a project based around locations in Cumbria where Wordsworth wrote his poems, and perhaps not surprisingly loves Lanercost Priory with its deep-rooted history: its connection to Edward I, Robert the Bruce, the Dacre and (again) Howard families. Like Carol, for Gillian it was necessary to be able to balance bringing up children with working as an artist: she found that balance in Brampton where she has ‘found her flock of people’. Both Carol and Gillian echo words of Winifred Nicholson, who wrote about balancing bringing up children with being an artist and also about art as a means of communication.
Other artists have grown up locally and flown the nest, to return later in life. After a ‘feral childhood’ near Bewcastle with two artist parents, painter and felt-sculpture maker Ness Bamkin moved away but now lives in the centre of Brampton and works in the Art department at William Howard secondary school, in addition to creating her own artworks; self-styled Arts Photographer Tricia Meynell, another well-known name in local art circles, also teaches at the school. Photographer Paul Stewart, on the other hand, was a student at William Howard school, has travelled extensively and lives abroad. He now frequently comes home and says “It was the return to the region that was inspirational. After 30 years I’d forgotten how beautiful it was and that it was as exotic as any tropical jungle or far away place that I had visited on my travels. Photographing the region again… was a real reward. It was a rediscovery of the nooks and crannies that I enjoyed as a child but now saw with a mature eye.” Paul’s photographs of Brampton and of ‘nooks and crannies’ such as the marsh area off Black Path are hauntingly evocative, and his words again echo some of Winifred Nicholson’s, who wrote about obtaining as much inspiration from the flowers of Cumberland as from those of more exotic countries.
And then there are the more recent incomers, who find themselves, as Gillian Naylor did, pulled into the area almost as if by an unseen force. Ceramicist Carolyn Marr “enjoys incorporating locally-found materials into [her] pieces” and points out that there are several different networks for artists and craftspeople locally. Nancye Church was going to buy a property in Cockermouth but it fell through and she happened to be told about Brampton through contacts in Malta. Now Nancye not only makes her jewellery here and takes some of her inspiration from Hadrian’s Wall, but opening The Front Room in Brampton and putting on exhibitions of local artists’ work has provided a year-round focal point for the sector.
Other focal points include the Abstract Gallery at New Mills Trout Farm and exhibitions in Off the Wall coffee shop. Local arts groups should also be remembered, with The Hut (a former World War I gym building from Eastriggs at Gretna, and previously used by the White House School) providing a wide range of groups and classes and artist Trish Parry, originally from Manchester, running courses from her home at Milton.
And with that sense of circles within history and of only three degrees of separation which is so prevalent in Cumbria, perhaps The Front Room is a sort of reincarnation of Li Yuan-Chia’s ‘Museum’ up at Banks. A prominent Taiwanese artist, Li was friends with Winifred Nicholson and chose to live near Brampton and Hadrian’s Wall and then attracted a wide variety of artists to exhibit in his space. Some were or became household names, amongst them Paul Nash, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Andy Goldsworthy and Jenny Cowan. Are we now, at The Front Room, seeing artists who will be similarly well-known in the future?