Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Village life in an age of uncertainty

Even in the bubble of North Norfolk, life can sometimes feel uncertain and far from stable. The last few weeks have seen a curious lack of visitors with even the main road through Burnham seeming unnaturally quiet. It's easy to put this down to the way the Bank Holidays fall or the sometimes shocking events around us - or even as the British like to do - the weather.

All these could be true but,  prompted by the need to establish the date of a particular event, looking back at diaries and notes of activity over the last 10 years here, remarkably little has changed. Pulling back even further, when faced with the all-too-frequent comment that everything is different it's worth bearing in mind the view of a visitor who was born here over 70 years ago and who has subsequently lived all over the world, that in fact this village is still very recognisable and much remains very familiar.

Of course there are many changes but not all are bad. The trees we all take for granted on the Green and which so exercise opinion when they need to be cut back, are in fact recent additions in the overall scheme of things and were not significant in the visitor's memory of growing up here in the early 50's. The shops have changed - but they are still here - and yes there is now more traffic and we do have a car park. In this last respect it's now largely forgotten how long this took - generally accepted at over 50 years - and the price was the addition of new housing that in general does not relate to the needs of the local community. But, yet again, it took a visitor's positive comment about this to remind us that at least the new houses look a lot better than much that has sprouted across the country in the last 10 years; and indirectly they perhaps mean Burnham is still seen as a good place to trade. There will always be naysayers but as the much travelled returnee noted, can anyone identify anywhere that has not changed in the last 70 years?

Returning to the many possible causes of the current uncertainties, the weather yet again stated it's case last weekend, with the following photos all being taken within 30 minutes of each other.

And just to prove that all this doesn't affect business - or maybe it does - this storm shower was closely followed here by a good sale, paid for in slightly damp banknotes, the customer having found themself caught on the beach during the downpour. As they noted, there are unexpected benefits from the new washable currency.

We were tempted to try the equally wet pieces of plastic but on consideration decided this might adversely affect technology.

In the gallery things change all the time, which of course is the reason we are here; over the years we have found it surprising the number of occasions that a customer is disconcerted to find the work they saw last year is no longer available. Not only do we sell different artist's work, but each artist's work in turn changes and moves on. We have two such instances currently on show. Firstly, Norwich artist Richard Bond has been working with fellow artist and popular book illustrator Susan Field on paintings of Norwich and Venice. Arguably very different to Richard's individual paintings en plein air, these joint works already seem to appeal to a rather different and possibly younger audience.

Secondly, we are seeing a new direction for another of Norfolk's own, Gerard Stamp. Best known for his vast serene watercolours he has, since our exhibition last year in Ely Cathedral, moved on to work in oil. Initially revisiting his distinctive church interiors, he has now returned to another love, the ethereal light of the Norfolk Saltmarsh, where sea and sky are inextricably entangled.

Going back to the question of if and where is there somewhere that has not changed in the last 70 years, just maybe this is the answer; - it does of course change all the time, with tides, seasons and weather, but.....

Thursday, 30 March 2017

French connections

They say timing is everything, so with an eye on the wider picture, we left these shores for the first time in some years last week and headed for La Belle France. The south west - the Dordogne to be more precise. Contrary to scurillous rumours this was not to replenish the cellar but to see old friends who have foresaken Angleterre for good.

Despite being served by one of the better low-cost airlines, the area seemed largely free of the English influences found elsewhere in France. Whilst realising that late March is hardly peak season it seemed pleasingly quiet but - importantly - not remote. Their house, just like St.Andrew's here in Burnham, is hard on the village street but the traffic is much less intrusive. The absence of the over-sized lorries serving our agriculture was really noticeable - being able to lie abed in the early hours without being shaken awake. A rural idyll? Perhaps, but somewhat counter-intuitively it seems death stalks the rural communities in a way that I'm not aware of here. It may be that the more evenly distribution of the population changes the way these things are noted but then who really knows?

With the growth of farmers markets here at home, it's easy to forget how central the market is to day to day life away from Paris and just how much choice - and competition - there is. No selection of stalls here, with walnuts, goats cheese and dried plums seemingly available at much the same price from so many stalls. Quality is all.

Given the time since we last visited we did, of course, partake of generous amounts of hospitality and we did, inevitably visit (and purchase from) one of the numerous Chateaux littering the landscape. They really have the art of selling down to a fine degree; it would be a truly hard-headed visitor who enjoyed d├ęgustation and departed without a purchase. I feel some thing along those lines might be about to creep back into the gallery world.

Back in the mists of time, before gallery and even before architecture, I worked as a gardener. I now know that it is in my blood, with at least some of my ancestors working as jobbing gardeners in Cumbria around 200 years ago, possibly even on one of the great topiary gardens at Levens. So with pleasing synchronicity (and with no knowledge of the foregoing) we were taken to the wonderful garden at Marqueyssac, high above the Dordogne. I now know these are one of the main attractions of the area, but somewhat unbelievably we had them to ourselves. A damp Friday towards the end of March has much to commend it. Sculptural planting is definitely my kind of thing.

Back in the gallery on Monday, further evidence of synchronicity, when in conversation with a customer who commented favourably on our selection of ceramicists and their work I mentioned that we had spent an enjoyable hour in discussion with a potter in Monpazier - one of the best Bastide towns - before making modest purchases. It emerged that not only had my visitor taught one of the potters on show here, but now lived and worked in France, not many kilometres from where we had been. Suffice to say, his work will hopefully be on show and selling here soon. Watch this space.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Spring is in the air

In theory at least, March marks the start of Spring. This year it actually feels like it just now with new colour and growth much in evidence. Ironically - or perhaps inevitably - Easter falls late this year and it seems as safe as any prediction in our turbulent world that by then we'll probably be beset by sleet and hail. In the meantime our visitors are enjoying it and appearing in pleasing numbers.

As much as we have a season, most people assume it starts around Easter and this year we're marking this by showing a new collection of Ruth McCabe's work as the main attraction of our exhibition running over the Easter period. A finalist and exhibitor in the Sunday Times Contemporary Watercolour Competition, her work has been exhibited at Royal Watercolour Society Contemporary Competition and featured on Sky TV's Landscape Artist of the Year. 

Following up on her highly successful introduction to our portfolio last year, her work will be on show from early April.

Visiting artists in their own environment is one of the perks of the job, and selecting work from Ruth's studio was no exception. This less than onerous task did, of course, necessitate my first trip out of Norfolk for some time, as well as presenting an opportunity to revisit haunts from earlier years including Aldeburgh and Southwold.

Although it must be some 5 years since my last visit much seemed familiar and little changed, even the shops. Similar though somewhat larger than Burnham, Aldeburgh is still blessed with a surprising range of individual shops, and just like here, clothes, food and art are in the ascendancy. It does though have a remarkable bookshop, confirming that there is a future for them given enthusiasm and commitment.

Again like some days in Burnham, there were remarkably few people in evidence - but they clearly must be there to support such businesses.

If Aldeburgh seemed little changed, Southwold presented a rather different picture. The harbour area and round the Greens seemed unchanged, but sadly the High Street did not have the remembered flavour or character, with the presence of national chains rather too apparent. Adnams of course continue and are still the bedrock on which the place was built. However subtle changes - the move of their retail and cafe operation away from the centre - seem to have impacted rather more than one might expect. There is a lesson in this which Burnham might well take note of.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Village walks

Since the New Year my routine has been to walk - sometimes before, sometimes after the working day - around the village. With the sea and the marsh just along the road, it's very easy to miss what is actually on the doorstep. No cars were involved.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Isle of Light - a personal view

I have known Gerard Stamp for over 20 years, first as an acquaintance, then a friend.  For the last 11 years I have had the privilege of not only showing his work but talking with him on almost daily basis about his hopes and, at times, fears.  He is, self-evidently, a perfectionist.  Sharing as we seem to the creative mind’s insecurity, he is never completely satisfied and always striving for more.

In those last 11 years I have also probably spent more time looking at and talking to people – from knights of the realm to art critics, to the famous and to students - about his work than anybody other than him. Because of the subject matter I am often asked whether he is an architect or particularly religious. In fact he is neither and for most people this is irrelevant. What he does have and what is so easily understood and appreciated is a unique ability to capture that sense of peace, tranquillity, time passing – have it what you will – that we all, religious or not, recognise and feel in our churches and cathedrals. As Judi Dench put it, "there is a sense of timelessness about his work which draws us in"

But above all is the light. Light playing and glancing off stone and glass, leading us on, and round and up. We all see it, many of us try and capture it through our cameras and phones, but this man can do it through that most challenging of media, watercolour. And on a monumental scale.

Over the years, I have watched and listened and talked and yet to me – probably more familiar with his work than many – it remains a mystery and a wondrous mystery. Yes, his technique is painstaking and his skill consummate but it is that ineffable and inexplicable ability to turn the intangible into the tangible that is fundamental. One might reasonably expect to have become conditioned to this – to no longer be surprised, but this is not the case. With each painting, I still experience that thrill first felt some 12 years ago when he made that leap from competence to miraculous, the same thrill that others tell me they feel when they first see his work.  With each exhibition I wonder whether he can continue to satisfy himself as well as his audience, and on each occasion, from York to St.Pauls, to Norwich and Exeter, and now to a shared love, Ely, our mutual doubts have proved without foundation.

This latest collection is to my eye, remarkable. Ely is wonderful – but also challenging.  Anyone who looks up at the Octagon or catches a distant glimpse of the Cathedral rising out of the fenland mists knows they are in the presence of something awe-inspiring and wonderful.  And quite how I still don’t know, but Gerard has captured this.

Isle of Light is in the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral from Saturday 24th September to Sunday 2nd October and is open from 10 to 4; normal entrance charges apply.

Thursday, 28 July 2016

It's that time again

Every year, just about now, Norfolk changes. It becomes very different to the rest of the year and for just a few short weeks, it's busy. You meet cars on roads that are normally quiet, the footpaths that are usually deserted are being pounded by feet and it's not possible to book a meal anywhere.

I'm not opposed to this or indeed discomforted it. It's just that even though it happens every year it always comes as a shock. And just as you come to terms with it and adjust your life style accordingly, it's gone again.

Visitors usually say "I expect this is your busy time" but in reality whilst footfall goes up, art sales are not particularly dependent on the holiday season, at least not in the sector in which we operate. Historically we have seen better January's than July's and as a neighbouring (well 15 miles away - which is neghbouring here) gallery once said to me there is no rhyme or reason to sales and there is never anything to be learnt from looking at what it was like this time last year, or 5 years ago, or 10 years ago. Every day is different and pleasingly unpredictable.

That said, the first part of the summer has despite the weather and the general chaos in the wider world seen some very pleasing sales. Our joint exhibition of Sally Scott's paintings paired with the intense colours and clarity of Jane Cox's ceramics fared well and brought in a number of new clients who apparently liked what they saw. Following this, Salt & Sand - a new collection of work by Mari French - was equally well received despite opening on the evening of what turned out to be one of the most unsettling and largely unforeseen events of the year.

We are now into our Summer Exhibition which this year includes two artists new to the gallery, Richard Bond, winner of Paint Out - the Plain Air competition in Norwich in 2015 and Ruth McCabe with her watercolours exploring the changing ecology of East Anglia's wetlands. In both cases these artists were introduced by other artists who already show with us here.

Going back to where I started, September sees us out on our travels again. This time we are heading for Ely, with our next major exhibition of Gerard Stamp's works in the wonderful setting of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral. Even though it's two months away, the release of the catalogue on-line has prompted a number of purchases already, so if you're interested in taking the plunge, sooner rather than later seems to be the clue.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

In pursuit of Spring

103 years ago, in March 1913, Edward Thomas - later to become one of the greatest poets of the 20th century - set out from London heading southwest to Somerset in search of Spring. The result of this journey was In Pursuit of Spring, reprinted and re-issued earlier this year, providing a fascinating insight into life in England before the First World War.

The Guardian re-traced some of his journey and published comparable views showing what they look like 103 years on.

Reassuringly and surprisingly, the remarkable thing is not just how much is recognisable but remains substantially unchanged. Other than a few cars and road markings to be seen in Bridgewater much remains the same. Trees have come and gone and in one instance - on the Quantocks - largely bare hillsides have become woodland; not what we might expect. It is very easy to think the world is changing faster and faster and usually for the worse, but here the evidence suggests otherwise.

Not only the landscape remains, but a hundred years on and despite our fears and uncertainty over our climate, Spring still arrives in Britain from the southwest and progresses north and east at between one and two miles an hour. Thus we might reasonably expect to witness similar stage in growth and activity around a week later in Norfolk as opposed to London. Making that journey a couple of weeks ago, the visual evidence was there to be seen. In just 125 miles the season had changed. In Norfolk, Spring was just showing; in southwest London it had happened and in some cases was looking a little past it.

Two weeks on and Spring is here in northwest Norfolk if not quite yet in northeast Norfolk. It is that subtle. Plant growth and trees coming into leaf are a little late - maybe a week or so - this year, even after the very early daffodils prompted by the unusual warmth of December and the absence of any real cold during January and February might have suggested otherwise.

Even with this week's untimely incursion of arctic air, in another couple of weeks, the bluebells in the woods 30 miles away in northeast Norfolk will be in bloom and the sweep of Spring across England will be complete again.

A hundred or so years ago Thomas wrote, "This year she peeped out in February, and coldly wept through March, and in April burst upon us in all her dancing splendour, so that old men have shaken their heads and declared that there never was such a Spring".