Spotlight on Kent’s creative coast
- Credit: Archant
The burgeoning arts scene along the Kent coast has been building into a wave of regeneration running from Gravesend to Folkestone
The visit by the Duchess of Cambridge to The Turner Contemporary gallery last year generated a lot of headlines. But while she gave Margate’s modish, futuristic art gallery a royal sign of approval, was she merely confirming what hipsters and media folk have known for the last few years?
Of course, aficionados of the Kent coast have been coming here ever since Turner started visiting Margate to paint in the 1820s. Like him they came for the coastal scenery, the outstanding quality of the natural light and the lively holiday resorts.
But after the Second World War, with the advent of cheap-as-chips package holidays to Spain and Greece, the coastal resort towns right round Kent suffered a period of decades-long neglect.
Since the millennium, however, there has been an exciting upturn in the fortunes of the Kent coast. This has been generated primarily by the advent of the High Speed rail link from London, cutting train times and attracting the power of the week-ending pink pound, the rise of new creative media hubs, as well as the surge of red-hot property prices in London forcing urban professionals and young families further and further out in search of affordable homes and a decent quality of life.
I catch up with John and Heather Corley and their son Myles, owners of Linden Hall Studio in Deal. They tell me why they decided to open their art gallery in 2014 after years of renovating a semi-derelict former chapel.
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“Deal is the place to be at the moment,” says Myles. “It’s full of DFLs.” He laughs at my look of confusion. “Down From London! The High Street on a Saturday morning is abuzz with DFLs. We are only an hour and 20 minutes from St Pancras and we have private viewings on a Friday night from 7-9pm so people can get here in time from London.”
Heather and John originally bought the gallery space to be an extension of John’s stained-glass workshop, but immediately saw its greater potential.
Heather adds: “There are very few spaces in the south east where the arts community can hold exhibitions of their own work in this kind of light and space; artists have told us that the space itself makes their work look better.
“There has always been an arts community in Deal ever since artists and actors made it their home in the 1950s, but it is starting to change now as artists from London make it their permanent home too.”
The Corleys fizz with excitement as they talk about future events planned at the gallery. “We are booked up with shows for the next two years,” says Myles. “This summer we are having a retrospective of the artist, Harold Chapman; he was in Paris with the Beat generation and now lives and works in Deal and is celebrating his 90th birthday next year.”
There must be something in the sea air as further round the coast, Ioannis Ioannou, marketing and engagement manager at the Creative Foundation in Folkestone, is equally enthusiastic.
The Creative Foundation was the dreamchild of former Saga boss, Sir Roger de Haan, who grew up in Folkestone and had a vision of regeneration for his home town. The Foundation currently looks after five progressive and independent arts groups intent on using the arts and creative media to regenerate the town.
Ioannis tells me about the work of the Foundation as we chat in his office in the Quarterhouse, one of the buildings that is in the heart of the Creative Quarter centred around Tontine Street and the cobbled Old High Street.
I ask him why Sir Roger set up the Creative Foundation in the town. “It’s a way of using the arts and new creative media. We are part of a tide of change along the Kentish coastal towns,” he tells me.
“The Quarterhouse is symptom of the change in the town, not the engine of it. We want to help drive change in Folkestone; we see ourselves as a catalyst for the townscape, bringing people into the town and increasing business.
“It’s what makes living and working in Folkestone so challenging, but in reality change takes time. It will take time to draw in the high-tech community as well as folk in social media who have the power to allow us to have a wider audience that follows what we do.”
In 2014 artists as famous as Tracy Emin, Mark Wallinger and Yoko Ono contributed artworks for the Folkestone Artworks Gallery without Walls event. The collection of 27 contemporary artworks originally commissioned for the event as part of the trail-blazing 2014 Folkestone Triennial are now on permanent display across the town.
A leaflet shows the visitor where they are and a trail you can follow to spot them in the most unusual places, like on a wall by the railway station. “Not many towns have an urban sculpture park like ours, with a piece by Banksy coming soon,” beams Ioannis.
We talk about the exciting challenges facing Folkestone, in common with other former port towns along the coast. “We want to encourage visitors as well as residents to explore Folkestone through its contemporary art; to become immersed and embedded in the town.
“We are now working towards the 2017 Triennial to make it bigger and better different experience for even more visitors. But what we really want is to change people’s perceptions of the town.”
ISLE OF SHEPPEY
Changing the perceptions of outsiders is a passion also shared by Chris Reed, project leader of the Big Fish Arts Festival in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. She tells me that her son is a true ‘Swampy,’ a native of Sheppey.
“That’s one of the things that I would most like to see change,” says Chris with feeling. “That when someone says they live on Sheppey, people don’t snigger.”
Plans are now well under way for the annual promenade festival in Sheppey this July. The theme of this year’s festival will be Flight, celebrating the island’s famous bird sanctuaries, internationally important havens for thousands of migrating birds. Sheerness High Street will be closed for a weekend-long celebration and other events are planned right across the island. “There will be a workshop for artists living on the island,” Chris tells me.
“A small shipping container will be converted into an art gallery next to the Old Dockyard church in Naval Terrace. People are familiar with the Historic Dockyard in Chatham, but the role of the Naval Dockyard in Sheerness is not nearly as well known as it should be. We want to change that, and we have also applied for funding to renovate the Old Dockyard church.”
Chris is not the only one to appreciate the potential of Sheppey. Will Palin, son of comedian and broadcaster Michael Palin, has restored one of the magnificent Regency houses in Naval Terrace next to the impressive shell of the Old Dockyard church.
And it is a matter of pride for the folk of Sheerness that the famous East German artist, Uwe Johnson, made his home on the island for many years in the 1970s.
Chris admits that times have been challenging for the islanders since the closure of the dockyard in 1960, but insists that all the qualities that once attracted visitors in their thousands from London are still as good as ever.
“It is an island with a vast amount of history, and there are a lot of artists here. It has a lovely light and amazing sunsets.”
Claire Brown, chair of Gravesham Arts Festival, appreciates as much as anyone the glorious, constantly changing nature of the light glowing off the Thames as it widens out into the estuary.
I catch up with her and vice-chair Liz Howe, in the kitchen of Claire’s Georgian house in the heart of old Gravesend next to the river, with ocean-going tankers and cruise ships from Tilbury sailing serenely past her kitchen windows.
“Last year we started a two-day event,” explains Claire. “It was a showcase event to promote St Andrew’s Arts Centre along with all our local artists.”
Right opposite Claire’s house, St Andrew’s Arts Centre is a local landmark in the town, next to the pier and easily spotted from the river. Originally built in the 1870s as a mission church for the bustling port and river community, it was deconsecrated in the 1970s, but there are now plans to apply for a license to be able to celebrate weddings there again.
“This August we are going to have a great festival in the town,” adds Claire. “There will be food traders selling home-made produce and a vintage market as well as an outdoor stage with an all-girls’ band, the Suzie-Q and Adam Hoffman as compère.”
“We have the second biggest Sikh community in the country in Gravesend, and we want to work to promote good community links. We can also use the arts to promote business and footfall in the town,” adds Liz.
“Our role is to bring people together and to showcase talent. We want to promote the arts culture, but we do think that art is meant to provoke.”
“We want to promote the town,” says Claire. “A lot of people have said Gravesend is a hidden gem; we don’t want it to be a hidden gem any more, we want everyone to know about it!”
FIND OUT MORE
16-24 July 2016
Sheppey Promenade Festival
Sheerness, Isle of Sheppey
Satnav: ME12 2TF
6-7 August 2016
Gravesend Arts Festival
Satnav: DA11 0TA
Linden Hall Studio
32 St George’s Road, Deal CT14 6BA
Open: Wed-Sun 11am to 4pm
Mill Bay, Folkestone CT20 1BN