The Bloomsbury Group favoured the fecundity of East Sussex as a haven from the hurly-burly of WC1; the St Ives group, the sea. But for more than half a century, it has been the artists living in the metropolises who have dominated the art scene. Glasgow and Liverpool, Chelsea and Hoxton Square in London have been the major hotbeds of artistic enterprise. Now, keen to escape the costs of city living, and capitalising on the wizardry of modern technology to help them keep in touch with clients and employers, artists are once again flocking to the countryside and founding new schools of rural art. Here, we visit three of them.
Merriscourt Farm Studios Oxfordshire
Tom and Clarissa Astor moved into Merris-court a 17th-century Cotswold farmhouse surrounded by barns, pig sties and 400 acres 10 years ago. ‘It was in a very poor state,’ remembers the great-grandson of American heiress, Nancy Astor. Now, the old pig farm, near Chipping Norton in Oxfordshire, has been lovingly renovated and is inhabited by a guitarist, a glass-maker, a carpenter, an interior designer, an art dealer and two photographers.
‘All sorts of things are going on here,’ says Mr Astor, 37, a bluegrass fanatic, who combines managing the farm with performing live concerts in which he plays the banjo and guitar. His musical training came from another Merriscourt resident, Bill Lovelady, an award-winning classical musician. ‘I hate the term commune or art community,’ says Mr Astor. ‘What we have here is a loose association of like-minded people. Friends. But we also want to provide a space for people who don’t want to go to London to see good art, or who want to listen to music in a congenial atmosphere. We run art courses for children, and would like to expand into running similar ones teaching pottery or the guitar to adults.’
Mr Astor’s wife, Clarissa, is an accomplished glass-maker. Born in South Africa and trained in Helsinki, she makes vases of lead-crystal glass, so thick they look as if they’ve been hewn from a glacier. Bottles the shape of torpedoes and as lustrous as Lalique are fired in a kiln in one of the barns. Next month, they form part of the first in a series of exhibitions being held in two vast threshing barns at Merriscourt.
The shows are being curated by Flora Fairbairn, daughter of philanthropist Esmée Fairbairn and godmother to the Astors’ eldest child. A rising star on the London art scene, Miss Fairbairn shares a cottage on the farm with Tom Bartlett, architectural designer and long-term business partner of Jade Jagger. ‘This area is crying out for something to go and see,’ she says. ‘There are lots of successful, cultured and increasingly young people who live around here who are not into just sitting about doing nothing.’
She’s certainly right about the successful bit: David Cameron, Ruby Wax, Alex James, Jeremy Clarkson and Kate Winslet all live minutes away.
Miss Fairbairn is optimistic about accumulating a new country-based clientele. ‘When people move out of London, the size of their house usually changes, and they find they need to buy more art,’ she says.
In a hayloft, around the corner from where Miss Fairbairn lives, roosts Jenny van Sommers, one of Britain’s leading commercial photographers, who lists among her clients Nike, Audi and Motorola. Having lived in Hoxton for eight years, she’s sold on the benefits of living in two places at once. ‘The social life in London is pretty non-stop and doesn’t give you much time for thinking. But, like Isaac Newton sitting under his apple tree, the best ideas come to me when I’m relaxed. At the moment, for instance, I’m thinking of doing a photographic project about horses, something that would never have occurred to me in London.’
Richard Dawson, a fashion photographer, who dwells in another of the barns, works principally for GQ; he met Mr Astor when they were at school together at Bryanston. ‘I have a very nice life out here,’ he says. ‘I had a work meeting the other day with two stylists who came down from London. It was lovely. We went to the pub for lunch, saw some hares and went for a walk through a wood. Being out of our normal city environment helped us all to think more creatively.’
Newland End Sculpture Group Essex
For Anne Curry, Ann Gascoine and Tessa Hawkes, working as a group in a complex of barns in rural north-west Essex has been a catalyst for an artistic renaissance. All in their sixties, with 16 grandchildren between them, the three sculptors have been meeting twice a week to work together and exchange news and ideas for the past decade. ‘We’re very frank and honest in our comments on each other’s work,’ says Mrs Gascoine, who sculpts mostly animals in clay and stone. ‘Otherwise, you can get lost in what you’re doing.’
Newland End has been the home of Mrs Curry since 1981. A French art historian and Egyptologist, and now an associate of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, she says she got into sculpture ‘by pure chance. An art teacher told me “you can’t draw a human body unless you understand how it works, and you can’t do that unless you model it so buy yourself a bag of clay”. I did, and it was a revelation; I couldn’t sleep, I was so excited, and I knew that from then on that was what I wanted to do.
‘When you live in deepest Essex, it’s not easy to find a teacher. It took me 18 months of utter frustration to find a local studio where I could learn the basic techniques. Then I started hiring my own models and working from home’. She was joined by Mrs Gascoine, who has always been interested in clay, and Mrs Hawkes, who studied sculpture at Chelsea School of Art and in Florence. ‘We have two wonderful models who we book sessions with,’ says Tessa, showing me the studio reserved for clay modelling. It has a wood-burning stove and is filled with figures, animals and abstract pieces, many of them at varying stages in the complex process of transforming a lump of clay into a beautifully patinated sculpture of cast bronze or (less expensive) cast resin.
The other two studios one for working in plaster and stone, the other for carving huge blocks of polystyrene are more utilitarian spaces, filled with heavy blocks of stone, tables of tools and machines filmed with dust. This isn’t the sort of working environment one associates with women. ‘It can get to 8˚, but we don’t notice the cold while we’re chipping away with our compressers,’ says Mrs Hawkes.
The finest building in the complex is a 17th-century barn, restored after severe storm damage in 1989. This provides a spectacular space for group shows they have exhibited here as part of the Cambridge Open Studios and will have a joint exhibition in 2010.
The show will reflect the new directions currently being explored by each sculptor. Mrs Gascoine, whose subjects are inspired by the animals on her smallholding at Stansted Mountfitchet, has started making large pieces out of wire, such as the greyhound seen in the photograph above. Mrs Hawkes, who previously worked on figurative terracottas and bronzes, is now carving a series of stone sculptures on the theme of Mother and Child. And Mrs Curry, best known for her figurative bronzes, has recently been doing more abstract works in stone and has begun to experiment with carving huge blocks of polystyrene.
‘It’s a totally different technique,’ she says. ‘Very exciting. The dust and gas released are very poisonous, so I have to wear a special helmet and clothes like an astronaut.’ It was her friend John Farnham, a former assistant of Henry Moore, who suggested she try the medium after she decided to start making larger pieces. ‘The advantage of polystyrene is its ease of manoeuvring,’ she says. This remarkable trio regard sculpture as the ‘cement’ in the close friendship they’ve forged since forming the Newland End Sculpture Group. Not only do they work together regularly and make joint visits to exhibitions, but they also take holidays together, just to enjoy each other’s company and to ‘discuss life’.
www.tessahawkes.co.uk; www.annecurry-sculpture.co.uk; www.anngascoine.co.uk
Real Wood Studios Roxburghshire
Heading south towards Jedburgh on the A68, it‘s difficult to concentrate on the road as the eye is continually drawn out to admire such incidental features in the landscape as a Byzantine-looking mausoleum and an obelisk on a hill. The latter is the Waterloo Monument, below which lies Real Wood Studios, a group of unprepossessing sheds surrounded by piles of lumber beside the former kitchen gardens to Monteviot House.
This is a place dedicated to wood, from the practical business of felling, milling and drying it, to the craftsmanship and commercial skills involved in its end use and sale. ‘Our essential activity is creativity, but with our feet firmly in the woods,’ says Graeme Murray, one of the six craftsmen who, together with a timber operations manager, now own the majority shareholding of the enterprise that re-formed as Real Wood Studios a few weeks ago.
The Woodschool, as it was formerly known, was founded by the late Tim Stead and others in 1996 under the aegis of Borders Forest Trust, which retains an interest and has an office in one of the buildings. As a result of a financial review last year, the Wood School was reconstructed as a co-operative.
The makers each run their own independent business, but pay a bench fee to the co-operative, which they jointly own. ‘But we collaborate on some projects and help each other out in different ways, and we’re very keen on encouraging young people to learn the skills,’ says Ross Ketteridge, the son of a cabinet-maker from Northumberland, who gave up his career as an international business manager to move to the Borders and take up woodworking full-time. ‘I was taught by my father when I was seven and had always done woodwork as a hobby, but it was my wonderful wife, Clare, who suggested I stop talking about my desire to do it full-time and actually do something about it. She got a job in the Borders General Hospital, and so we packed in the rat race, moved up from Tynemouth, and now keep a smallholding near Melrose with pigs and hens.’ Mr Ketteridge found out about the wood studios through an advertisement in a local magazine and now specialises in making bespoke furniture. ‘I’ve never been happier in my life,’ he says.
Mr Murray got involved with the Wood-school when he curated an exhibition called ‘The Great Divide’, which focused on creative people in the landscape. Having trained as a sculptor at the Edinburgh College of Art, he became director of the Fruitmarket Gallery and set up a small publishing company, ‘although I never stopped making things in my spare time’. He joined the studios five years ago, and makes a range of beautiful and unusual tables, some incorporating glass, and also sculptural pieces. He has recently moved from Edinburgh to the country near Kelso, where he’s involved in a community orchard.
‘We have a very handy mix of skills for running the business,’ says Mr Murray, introducing me to other members of the group, whose backgrounds include accountancy, graphic design and fine furniture-making. Their shared interest is working with wood designing, cabinet-making, sculpting and a commitment to keeping traditional skills alive. ‘Art students are losing out on gaining practical knowledge as college studios are being run down and everything is done on computers. We’ve gone back to grassroots and are offering something unique, and it’s a revelation for many to find that craftsmanship is something that is actually valued and practised here. We’re offering an alternative to flat-packed furniture from Borneo and the Philippines and our order books are full.’
Keith Threadgall operates the mobile sawmill and manages the timber operations. Logs are sliced up on site and then left for a few years to season before being kiln-dried beside the workshops for about six weeks. With timber felling and processing integral to its activities, Real Wood Studios can guarantee an assured ‘chain of custody’ for every piece it produces. The collective is committed not only to continuing the tradition of craftsmanship in timber, but also to using wherever possible the native oak, elm, ash, birch, beech, sycamore and other sustainable hardwoods that are among Scotland’s finest assets.