What does art bring to Yorkshire’s seaside communities?

Visitors stop for a chat with Freddie Gilroy on his favourite Scarborough bench

Visitors stop for a chat with Freddie Gilroy on his favourite Scarborough bench - Credit: Archant

Jo Haywood looks at creativity on the coast Photographs by Tony Bartholomew

You can’t miss old Freddie Gilroy. He sits quietly on his favourite bench in Scarborough’s North Bay, deep in contemplation of times past. Come rain or shine, he’s there. Even when the waves are crashing up on to the road and his flat cap is in danger of a soaking, he’s an immovable presence in an ever-changing world.

Tourists have been known to squeeze up next to him for a quick holiday snap and the odd seagull has ventured on to his shoulder for a leisurely pit-stop before swooping into South Bay in search of small children with big ice creams.

Freddie, whose full Sunday name is Freddie Gilroy and the Belsen Stragglers, is one of the many large artworks that pepper the Yorkshire coast, stopping visitors in their tracks and providing locals with a welcome daily dose of culture as they pass on their way to work or to pick the kids up from school.

He was created by Ray Lonsdale, a steel fabricator from Durham who conveys incredible sensitivity and emotion in what is, after all, a cold, hard metal, and was bought for the town in 2011 by generous local resident Maureen Robinson.

Less than a year later, she bought another of his giant steel sculptures – A High Tide In Short Wellies – for Filey seafront, where the rather dour fisherman now stands next to the crazy golf.

Teamed with the stunning glass artworks created by Kirsty Brooks outside Bridlington Spa, Captain Scoresby & Son in their Whitby harbour crows’ nest, the terrifyingly imposing grey reef shark alongside The Deep in Hull and all manner of art in between, our coast has become a veritable outdoor gallery in recent years.

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Of course, the stunning cliffs, beaches, wildlife and architecture of Yorkshire have inspired artists for generations, going back to the famous 19th century Staithes Group of painters and beyond. But it does seem that, in recent years, our coastal community of contemporary artists has begun to grow.

‘There’s a very supportive artistic community here on the coast, especially via social media,’ said Whitby-based painter Bridget Wilkinson. ‘The recession has had an effect on the community, but it’s actually been quite a positive one. People have had nothing to lose so they’ve given art a go.’

So, what’s inspiring modern artists to create such eye-catching pieces for our coastal towns? Who better to ask than Freddie and the fisherman’s creator Ray Lonsdale.

‘My pieces all come back to real people,’ he said. ‘My dad was a fisherman and I know it was much easier for him 20 years ago than it is now. The Filey piece is me bemoaning the depletion of our fish stocks. Basically, I’m having a little rant.’

For Bridget, a former occupational therapist who’s turned her hobby into a career, it’s all about the unique colours of the coast: ‘Bold and energetic colours are my passion, and I’m fascinated by the coastline, where the land meets the sea and gives you a whole new perspective on life.

‘And who wouldn’t be inspired by Whitby’s quirkiness? It’s a really special place, with the views across to the abbey and the way the houses seem to cling to the steep sides of the town as if we’re all balanced precariously on the edge of the sea.’

From Whitby’s whalebone arch and Filey’s comically oversized lobster to Ray’s duo of superhuman-sized steel creations, our coastal towns definitely seem to be thinking big when it comes to art. But does size really matter?

‘I love the heft and impact of the large artworks along our coastline, especially as most of them actually mean something,’ said Bridget. ‘They have a connection to the place.’

Ray, perhaps not surprisingly as someone who specialises in larger than life creations, agrees: ‘Obviously I’m biased but I think large artworks create interest and provide a focal point. It’s public art – very public in my case – and that makes it even more important to get the balance right between the meaning of the piece and the aesthetic.

‘I believe art shouldn’t just be for the arty clique. For me, Joe Bloggs’ opinion is as important – if not more important – than Brian Sewell’s.’

Coastal creatives

Whitby Creates and Scarborough Arts Forum both have busy Facebook pages, bringing local artists together to organise joint exhibitions and events.

Staithes Festival of Arts & Heritage is back again for its fourth year on September 12th and 13th. During the event, more than 100 cottages will be transformed into temporary art galleries and there’ll be live music, guided walks, talks and workshops. See staithesfestival.com for details.

Filey Art Society is hosting its Summer Exhibition from August 29th to 31st at the Evron Centre on John Street. See fileyartsociety.co.uk for details.

The Courtyard Gallery at Burton Agnes Hall is hosting an exhibition by Bridlington Art Society from August 10th to 21st. Its full 2015 schedule of displays by local artists can be found at burtonagnes.com.

Scarborough Art Gallery is looking for people to take part in Totally Locally Scarborough, a community gallery exhibition due to run from August 18th to September 13th. For details, email rachel.drew@smtrust.uk.com.