Art inspired by the past
Art and culture are two words which have long been synonymous with Northumberland. Its rolling hills and rugged coast have provided the scene for fine works of art over the generations, and it’s also played host to award-winning exhibitions and art events.
While the world admired the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red at the Tower of London in 2014 to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of WW1, Northumberland made its own contribution a year later. Woodhorn Museum in Ashington hit the headlines when it staged the Weeping Window, where a cascade of poppies streamed from the winding wheel of one of the former colliery’s pit wheels.
Of course, this isn’t the first time the county’s industrial past has produced art, and visitors to Woodhorn can also learn more about a remarkable group of men known as the Pitmen Painters. The Pitmen Painters were coal miners who first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation – at evening class. They produced paintings which captured every aspect of life in and around their mining community, above and below ground, from the scenes around the kitchen table and in the allotment to the dangerous and dirty world of the coal face. At Woodhorn you can see 80 of their best paintings and find out more about the group, who inspired Billy Elliot writer, Lee Hall, to write the play Pitmen Painters, which has received rave reviews not only in the north east, but also at London’s National Theatre and on Broadway.
From natural wonders such as its coastline, to man-made ones – its castles in particular – Northumberland has inspired generations of artists. For centuries artists have been seduced by the clear, northern light and the county’s array of natural wildlife, and this is seen in many of Northumberland’s galleries and art shops. Galleries can be found in towns, villages and even in rural spots, many selling the work of contemporary artists such as Northumberland’s Walter Holmes whose pastel seascapes are highly sought after.
The Newbiggin by the Sea Art Trail gives visitors the chance to see a range of community, historical and modern art all inspired by and created in the coastal town. This includes Sean Henry’s Couple sculpture, which was installed on the sands in 2007 as part of the breakwater and is the UK’s first permanent offshore sculpture.
From natural wonders such as its coastline, to man-made ones – its castles in particular – Northumberland has inspired generations of artists
Contemporary and locally-produced
The Allendale Forge Studios Art and Craft Centre – built on the site of the 17th-century village forge at Allendale – is another hunting ground for visitors wanting to snap up some contemporary, locally-produced art as a memento of their stay. The centre is home to 12 working galleries, a café and a gallery shop and displays traditional and contemporary art from Northumberland as well as hosting craft fairs, workshops, exhibitions, musical evenings and open studio events.
To the west of Morpeth lies Kirkharle Lake and Courtyard, the tiny village which was the birthplace of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, arguably Britain’s most famous landscape architect. Today the Courtyard offers a unique shopping experience promising home-cooked food, boutique shops, and arts and crafts workshops. There is also a regular craft fair selling everything from sculptures to papier mâché by nationally-renowned craft people.
Along with contemporary art, there is also plenty of scope to view the area through the eyes of artists who are no longer with us, but whose interpretations of its landscape and people are still much admired today.
LS Lowry – of “matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs” fame – holidayed regularly in Berwick upon Tweed from the mid-1930s to the summer before his death in 1976 and visitors can now visit sites depicted in some of his paintings and drawings of the area. The three hour Lowry trail takes in the Elizabethan Walls and Berwick town, before crossing the River into Tweedmouth and Spittal.
Today the Courtyard offers a unique shopping experience promising home-cooked food, boutique shops, and arts and crafts workshops
Meanwhile, no visit to Northumberland is complete without a trip to Wallington Hall. Lived in by 10 generations of the Blackett and Trevelyan families, it is full of fabulous curiosities and fascinating stories. A highlight is the Central Hall, where Pre-Raphaelite artist William Bell Scott created eight large wall paintings capturing 2000 years of local history, interspersed images of flowers and plants painted directly on to the stone. The paintings include the artist’s famous Iron and Coal – showing the growth of heavy industry on the Tyne – and a Border reiver being served a stirrup instead of a meal by his disgruntled wife – a clear indication that the cupboard was bare and it was time he got on his horse and went hunting.
Also worth seeing at Wallington is the Parlour, still decorated with its original William Morris wallpaper and hung with paintings by Turner, Ruskin and Burne-Jones. And do pop into the doll’s house room, which is a favourite with visitors of all ages. The oldest doll’s house dates to 1835, while the Hammond House has 36 rooms, each lit by electricity. This room also displays 3,000 lead soldiers played with by the Trevelyan brothers. Finally, don’t miss the Cabinet of Curiosities on the top floor, which contains everything from fossils to a porcupine fish, Egyptian figures, narwhal tusks and kangaroo paws collected by Wallington’s former owners during the course of their travels.
More fascinating objects, from suits of armour to artworks, porcelain and even the occasional item by Fabergé, are to be found at another must-see attraction; Bamburgh Castle, which towers over the pretty coastal village. In addition Cragside, former home of the millionaire industrialist Lord Armstrong, houses treasures gathered from around the globe.
However, art lovers would also be well advised to head into the grounds where they will see a sculpture with a difference. It is the Green Man; an imposing sculpture carved from a 140-year-old Douglas fir which fell victim to disease. This stunning piece of natural art is the work of award-winning tree sculptor and artist Tommy Craggs, from Consett, County Durham and is inspired by the mythical Green Man, believed by our ancient ancestors to be the guardian of the forests. It has oak leaves forming a pattern on its face and took Tommy three days to carve into shape.
More fascinating objects, from suits of armour to artworks, porcelain and even the occasional item by Fabergé, are to be found at another must-see attraction; Bamburgh Castle
While Cragside is testament to the industrial might and ingenuity of Victorian Northumbrians, it is worth remembering that the county was also the birthplace of the father of the railways; George Stephenson. George was born in 1780 at Wylam, on the banks of the Tyne and is most famous for building The Rocket, which achieved a record speed of 36mph in a competition in 1829, to find the best locomotive.
The Wylam Railway Museum, opened in 1981, the bicentenary of his birth, to commemorate the village’s unique contribution to railway history and is well worth a visit. It is slightly less well known that, prior to his interest in railways, George Stephenson worked in the coal mines, where he saw at first hand the danger of using naked flames in pits full of flammable gases. And, in 1815, he developed a safety lamp – unaware that further south Britain’s leading scientist, Humphry Davy, was producing an alternative version. The fact that a self-taught, virtually unknown northerner could match one of Britain’s best brains leads to accusations that Stephenson had merely copied Davy’s design and it took a Parliamentary inquiry to clear Stephenson’s name.
Finally, having viewed art created by a group of 20th-century Northumberland men, it is worth finding time to look at the work of one Northumbrian man, more than 1000 years earlier. His name was Eadfrith and he was Bishop of Lindisfarne between 698 and 721, during which time he single handedly created one of the world’s greatest artistic and religious treasures; the Lindisfarne Gospels. This book, recounting the life and teaching of Jesus Christ according to the gospels of Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, is testament to the tenacity of Christian belief during one of the most turbulent periods of British history.
Eadfrith employed an exceptionally wide range of colours, using animal, vegetable and mineral pigments, to create the Lindisfarne Gospels. However, his great work remains partly unfinished, suggesting the monk died before he could complete it. Although the original is now in the British Library, visitors to the Lindisfarne Centre on Holy Island can see a perfect replica of the illuminated manuscript and find out more, not only about Eadfrith but also about the Vikings who invaded the island in 793AD. With such a turbulent history, it’s perhaps no surprise that this county, which has fought off invaders from Scotland and Scandinavia, offers such rich, cultural heritage which really is second to none.
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