Lasting Impressions: Ridgeway Gallery

In search of beauty and an enduring reminder of a much-loved landscape, Mike Smith visits Ridgeway Gallery in Bakewell

Visitors approach Bakewell by passing through one of the most beautifully composed landscapes in Britain: a collage of wide moors and narrow dales, huddled villages and rambling walls, rocky outcrops and deep caves, fast-flowing streams and ever-changing weather. How many of those visitors must wish that they could take home a permanent reminder of the glorious scenery that surrounds the town?

One of the best ways of making visual pleasures endure is to purchase an evocative painting of the locality. And there is no better place to look for such a picture than Bakewell’s Ridgeway Gallery, where an extensive collection of Peak District paintings is supplemented by a selection of works that celebrate other treasured British landscapes, from the mountains of Scotland and Wales to the coasts of Yorkshire and Cornwall.

The gallery was established in 2007 by Sarah Ridgeway who worked for many years as an accountant but always loved to visit art shows and longed to open a gallery of her own. Sarah and her husband embarked on a prolonged search to find the perfect premises. After several unsuccessful attempts the couple came across the Old Tavern on the edge of Rutland Square in Bakewell and quickly moved in. Sarah said, ‘We were delighted to have found a suitable space in Bakewell, as it was always our preferred place to open, being such a beautiful town.’

At first sight, the former inn was an unlikely venue for an art gallery. Its interior walls were covered in mock-Tudor panelling and there was an old fireplace at one end. What’s more, the building’s listed status as an adjunct to the historic Rutland Arms Hotel meant that these fixtures could not be removed. However, Sarah did obtain permission to cover them with panelling, which she painted in pure-white to create a bright space where paintings could be shown in the best possible light.

Recalling her first months as a gallery-owner, Sarah said: ‘Starting out with a display of paintings by a respected artist such as Rex Preston helped to establish our reputation and prompted other painters to show their work. I began to exhibit pictures by artists who often accompanied Rex on his painting expeditions. We now have work by lots of other artists, but I only show their work if the quality is good and if I have got to know them personally.’

It is this personal acquaintance with her artists which makes Sarah the perfect curator. If a potential purchaser asks her about a particular work, she can describe when, where and how it was created. In fact, she knows her artists so well that she might even try to suggest potential subject matter, such as a tree she passes on her way to work, ever hopeful that one day they will take up her suggestion. And she can always explain why the artist took up painting as a way of life and how his or her career has progressed.

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As we chatted, Sarah told me that Rex Preston became a professional artist 43 years ago, when he gave up his job as a print-designer. Since then, he has walked in all weathers to find suitable subjects for his paintings, many of which reflect his love of wild, unspoilt places, not only in the Peak District but also in the mountains of Scotland, the marshlands of Norfolk and the rugged coastline of Cornwall. Although Rex’s reputation is based on his panoramic landscapes, he has also become adept at transforming small elements within his large compositions into separate fully-developed images in their own right. An exquisite painting of reflections in one corner of a small pool in Cheedale is a fine example of this approach.

The close knit nature of the gallery and its artists has allowed Sarah on occasion to display directly the contrasting styles of some of her artists, particularly where several of them have painted together and then brought their own interpretations of the same subject into the gallery.

Rex’s son, Mark Preston, was inspired to take up painting as a career after joining his father on painting expeditions. Although father and son have similar landscape enthusiasms their approach differs in many respects. Whereas Rex often paints his larger canvases in the studio from his memories of a scene and sketches made on location, Mark is likely to paint more regularly en plein air. He has developed an uncanny ability to capture the movement of grasses in the foreground of a landscape.

The gallery often gives visitors a chance to meet with artists and talk to them directly about their creative methods and what inspires them. Rex, Mark and Julian Mason, who regularly hold two-week solo exhibitions at the gallery, are just three of the artists to feature at these events, which have brought to life some interesting stories.

Sarah told me of Gareth Buxton’s life-changing experience. Having survived an almost head-on car crash, Gareth decided to make the most of being alive by devoting time to art. His paintings are characterised by depictions of landscapes that have been given added drama by mist, wind and rainstorms.

Michael Barnfather is another talented man who changed direction. In 1964, he gave up his job as a technical artist with Rolls-Royce and began to develop into one of Britain’s most accomplished landscape painters. With their tightly-drawn detail, his pictures are as satisfying in close-up as they are when viewed from a distance.

Other paintings of the Derbyshire landscape that caught my eye in the gallery included a cheery depiction of a snowy hillside in Glossop by Andrew Macara, who has exhibited at the Royal Academy and with the Royal Society of British Artists, and a painting of Rainster Rocks by Roger Allen, who won the Derbyshire Open Watercolour Prize in 2003 and 2008. Roger’s ability to capture the texture of limestone bears an uncanny resemblance to that shown by his namesake, Harry Allen, the celebrated Sheffield artist.

Work on show in the gallery is not confined to paintings of inland landscapes. Sarah exhibits atmospheric plein-air pictures of Cornwall by Douglas Hill and superbly-executed paintings by Terence Storey, who paints spectacular marine subjects despite spending most of his long life in land-locked Derbyshire. Terence is one of the gallery’s most prestigious exhibitors, having been for many years a member and President of the Royal Society of Marine Artists.

Nor are the works on display in the gallery confined to paintings. Other striking exhibits include: Anna Rothwell’s bronze figures, which portray emotion through body language and facial expression; Joanne Cox’s vessels, characterised by exposed layers of coloured glass; and Ian Tomii’s sculptures, where the chance results of the Raku technique and the deliberate intentions of the artist combine to brilliant effect.

Before leaving the gallery, I inspected a temporary display of small paintings by David Carson Shaw. The caption attached by David to his little exhibition describes how he tries ‘to portray a sense of permanence and happiness, combined with an awareness of time passing’. The words he uses are another reminder that many of the paintings that can be purchased in Sarah Ridgeway’s gallery are a perfect means of giving permanence to memories of happy times spent in the Peak District.

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