A flagship building project in the heart of Kingsbridge is set to make Devon a hub for the British and international art scene 

This past year, local residents can’t fail to have noticed the huge building project taking place on Fore Street, Kingsbridge.  

Under the direction of South Devon architects Andrew Lethbridge Associates and builders KM Developments South West Ltd, a previously dilapidated building has undergone a complete transformation.  

Local couple Fi and Matt Velarde are spearheading the renovation of 86 Fore Street with the aim of creating a leading venue for the exhibition of both British and international art.  

Great British Life: The Velarde site in progressThe Velarde site in progress (Image: Velarde Gallery)

With a focus on quality, diversity of practice and innovation, Velarde Gallery’s year-round programme of shows will be designed to exhibit Devon’s brightest and most promising talent, alongside exceptional painting, sculpture, photography and contemporary craft from across the UK and Europe.  

Opening in July this year, the gallery will include a 1,400 square foot exhibition space, hosting up to 12 exhibitions a year, and a garden displaying work by some of Devon and the UK’s leading sculptors.  

‘Due to the size of the build, and the endless delay of lockdown, this project has been one hell of an undertaking,’ says owner and company director Matt. ‘But all involved - our contractors, architect and suppliers - have done a tremendous job under difficult circumstances.  

Great British Life: Owner Matt Velarde onsite at the buildOwner Matt Velarde onsite at the build (Image: Velarde Gallery)

‘The pandemic and the war in Ukraine have affected the sourcing of materials for the build, both in terms of cost and lead times, and the economic uncertainty will continue to be a challenge, but where we can we have built resilience into our forward planning and strategy. We have every faith in our new gallery, and we hope to make a real contribution to art in Devon, and to the economy of our beloved Kingsbridge.’  

Velarde’s team is made up primarily of three friends with a lifelong passion for art: photographer Matt and printmaker Fi are the owners, while photographer, ceramicist and businesswoman Lorna Yabsley takes up the role of gallery director.  

‘We’ve been friends for many years,’ says Lorna. ‘We share a love of art, and both Matt and Fi have a huge interest the contemporary arts scene, and great aesthetic judgement.  

‘We aim to establish Velarde as one of the leading art galleries in the Westcountry, attracting a whole new audience to the area and helping to build up the arts scene in Devon.  

‘Kingsbridge is bucking the national trend right now, and many great independent retailers have opened here recently. We feel strongly about adding value to our local economy and have found a site in Kingsbridge with enough scope for two large gallery spaces, a sculpture garden, two boutique apartments and a studio from where we can base our own creative practice.  

‘Velarde will be an artist-run gallery, and I think that gives us the edge. We are so lucky to live in this beautiful little corner of the world, and we look forward to welcoming a wide and varied demographic through our doors.  

‘It’s true, we will be different, but there are many examples of successful business models like ours, from Somerset down to West Cornwall, galleries that exist in the rural sphere and succeed by becoming a destination venue. That will be us.’  

Also on the Velarde team are experienced curator and gallerist Nikki Elphinstone, co-founder of Ugandan contemporary arts centre 32 Degrees East, and fine art specialist Mercedes Smith, previously of the Tate Gallery and founder of the consultancy Fine Art Communications.  

‘Nikki’s experience as a gallerist, both nationally and internationally, is invaluable,’ says Lorna, ‘and Mercedes has been our arts specialist from the early concept stage of Velarde and has really guided us all the way, so between us all we have a great team.’ 

Great British Life: A team meeting on the site of the new Velarde GalleryA team meeting on the site of the new Velarde Gallery (Image: Velarde Gallery)

All five make up Velarde’s curatorial board, a strategy designed to ensure a wide and diverse selection of artists for show.  

Fi says, ‘We meet every two months to review and select great new artists, and there is always some rough and tumble debate, but that’s the fun of it. We all have very different ideas, and that’s what will keep our exhibition schedule vibrant.  

‘There will be new reasons to come and see every single Velarde show. We want people to visit our gallery from all over the country and Europe, and to give artists an incredible platform for their work outside of urban art centres like London,’ 

Matt adds, ‘We want to help Devon rub shoulders with Cornwall and to expand the South West as a centre for British and international art. We don’t see galleries in South Devon or Kingsbridge as our rivals, we are all likeminded partners in the promotion of exceptional artwork, and in support of Devon’s cultural tourism. Ultimately, we hope the opening of Velarde will be a trigger for the expansion of the brilliant art scene here in the South Hams and beyond.’