A look at the thriving arts scene in Staithes
- Credit: Tony Bartholomew
Staithes was once home to a thriving artists’ colony – and still is, as Jo Haywood discovers.
Staithes has a long and celebrated history of art, reaching through time from the renowned 19th century Staithes Group to the myriad present-day makers, creators, artists and crafters who populate its higgledy-piggledy cottages and steep, winding streets.
While most seaside shops are stuffed with buckets and spades, badly painted shells and neon sunhats, you’re far more likely to find modern landscape paintings, vintage lamps and handcrafted toys in the galleries, boutiques, cafes and gift emporiums that line the precipitous slope that leads, in a wonderfully winding fashion, from the visitors’ car park to the bite-sized beach.
Once one of the largest fishing ports on the North-East coast, this modest little hamlet on the edge of the Yorkshire-Cleveland border has carved out a name for itself in recent years as a day-at-the-beach destination for families in search of fossils, rock pool adventures and occasional seal-spotting.
It remains, however, an artists’ colony at heart, providing inspiration to sculptors, carvers, painters, stitchers, ceramicists and all manner of other makers.
The village is the permanent home of numerous artists and craftspeople. Sonia Bayliss makes handmade teddy bears; Maggie Bede crafts rag dolls; Cathy Cortese and Mel Cotter are both painters; Steve Iredale makes chainsaw sculptures; Colin Harrison, Tony Murphy and Dave Manship are all photographers; Jill Tose creates knitted food; and sisters Lucy and Sarah Wilson create subtle paintings on wood and stone, and bespoke objects from natural and junk finds.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of the current colony of artists in Staithes, but it gives a flavour of the wide spectrum of making going on in this small but culturally industrious community. It also gives a flavour of the work you will find in Staithes Gallery, Slipway Studio, Staithes Studios Gallery and Staithes Arts & Crafts Centre, which hosts regular selling exhibitions from Easter to October at its St Peter’s Centre base in Church Street.
‘There is something about the geography of this place that inspires artists,’ said Al Milnes, who runs Staithes Gallery on the High Street. ‘We have the sea in front of us and the rugged landscape behind us, so we’re effectively cut off from the world – and happy to be so. It often feels like we’re living on our own island, with its own weather and its own ever-changing light.
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‘No two views are the same and there’s inspiration around every corner. I watch artists completely immersed in their work, unaware of anything other than their brush strokes, and I envy them a little. To be honest, it doesn’t even matter what the final picture looks like, whether it’s good or bad, when the process itself is so meditative.’
Al champions local artists in her gallery, most notably Rob Shaw, a self-taught Staithes-based studio painter who uses bold colour and loose, free lines to recreate the unique atmosphere of his adopted home. She also runs Staithes Art School, hosting residential painting weekends led by experienced tutors and professional artists.
‘I’m not an artist myself, but living and working here has made me bolder and more confident in my choices,’ said Al. ‘If you have even a passing interest in art and craft, I don’t think you could find a more supportive community.’
The village celebrates its artistic past, present and future every year at Staithes Festival of Art & Culture, which you can catch this time around over the weekend of September 9th and 10th (with a preview evening on the 8th).
Villagers will throw open the doors of their homes, transforming them into temporary galleries to show the work of more than 100 local and visiting artists. As well as this marvellous maze of pop-up displays, visitors will also be able to enjoy guided walks, workshops, talks, film show, food, drink and general merriment provided by buskers and full-scale concerts.
But if you don’t fancy waiting until September (and why should you?), you’re guaranteed a warm welcome in Staithes on pretty much every day of the year – although that steep main street can be a bit off-putting in winter without a Sherpa.
‘We do have the occasional tumbleweed day, but mostly Staithes is a bustling little place,’ said Trudie Ward, who runs Dotty’s Vintage Tearoom, a delightful High Street haven packed with wonderful bits and bobs (you’ll suddenly have a pressing need for a tea-tray or a glass bonbonniere) alongside a café serving what must be some of the best scones in Yorkshire (if not the world).
‘I came here from Wakefield about five years ago and I don’t regret it for a second. I work every hour that god sends and I’m never going to make my fortune here, but I just have to bob my head out of that door for a minute and it’s worth it. It’s like living in Cornwall, only better because it’s in Yorkshire.
‘As communities go, this is one of the best. We all know each other and we all support each other. And the good thing is we like to share what we’ve got with visitors. Come and see us and I can guarantee you’ll get the warmest welcome.’
All this and a freshly baked scone the size of a campervan? What more could you possibly wish for.
Staithes stuff and nonsense
:: CBeebies’ Old Jack’s Boat, starring Bernard Cribbins as a retired fisherman, was filmed in Staithes. (Please form an orderly queue for photographs of you pointing at things off the telly.)
:: While you’re wandering the maze of snickets that make up Staithes (getting blissfully lost and not caring a jot), watch out for the mind-boggling painted illusion trail created by world-renowned trompe l’oeil artist Paul Czainski.
:: Staithes Heritage Centre is a well worth a visit. This fascinating little museum houses a plethora of artefacts relating to Captain Cook, who came from the village, as well as other items and documents of local interest.
:: Once you’ve got your breath back from climbing the vertiginously steep slope out of the village (you’ll be panting like a dog when you reach the visitors’ car park and, no, it won’t be pretty), why not give your legs a stretch on the Cleveland Way, which stretches high up on the cliffs and down along the beach and coves.
:: The dramatic cliffs around Staithes have been chipped away by jet, alum and ironstone miners over the years, but still retain a rich supply of fossils, dating back 160 million years, for small history hunters armed with buckets and spades.
Who were the Staithes Group?
In the late 19th century, a group of artists including Laura Johnson (later Dame Laura Knight), Harold Knight and Joseph Bagshawe came to Staithes to paint.
The 25 members of the group were inspired by French Impressionists such as Monet, Cezanne and Renoir, working together ‘en plein air’ (or ‘outside’ as we Brits like to call it), mostly in oil and watercolour.
Staithes had previously been home to ‘Turner of the North’ George Weatherill, his son Richard and daughter Mary, and a young Laura Johnson was advised to follow in their footsteps (literally) by her drawing master, Thomas Barrett, who told her, rather astutely, ‘there is no place like it in all the world for painting’.
The coming of the railway meant that hordes of young British Impressionists soon followed, queuing up to capture Staithes’ towering cliffs, wild seas, storm-battered cottages and resilient fisherfolk.