Celebrating 25 years of Matlock Artists Society

Sandy Hillyer demonstrates her technique

Sandy Hillyer demonstrates her technique - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Ashley Franklin discovers the pleasures of painting on a visit to the society at their All Saints Church Hall venue in Matlock

Robin Hood's Bay by Ken Spencer

Robin Hood's Bay by Ken Spencer - Credit: Ashley Franklin

‘Just to paint is great fun. The colours are lovely to look at and delicious to squeeze out. Matching them, however crudely, with what you see is fascinating and absolutely absorbing. Try it if you have not done so – before you die.’

- Winston Churchill, from Painting as a Pastime, published 1948

It seems pertinent that Winston Churchill’s book on the pleasures of painting was re-published last year. With conceptual, contemporary and gimmicky art constantly hogging the headlines, you may be left with the feeling that exhibition galleries are heaving with performance, installation, film and photography art.

Joyce and Tony Renner with Doreen Andrews

Joyce and Tony Renner with Doreen Andrews - Credit: Ashley Franklin

However, visit the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition or, closer to home, drop in on any reputable gallery in Derbyshire, and you’ll see a different picture. Last year, a South Bank Show programme revealed that even Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst had picked up their brushes again. The show was entitled ‘Painting is Back’.

The truth is, painting has never been away, a truth acknowledged when I dropped in to the monthly get-together for the Matlock Artists Society at their All Saints Church Hall venue in Matlock. The Society has just chalked up 25 years and celebrated in style with an exhibition at Cromford Mills – an especially proud event for the members was its official opening by the Duke of Devonshire.

A quarter of a century on, I can report that the Society is as vibrant and alive as a Jackson Pollock canvas. There was an air of Pollock-like experimentalism in the air as a workshop by Society member Sandy Hillyer revealed her free form approach to landscapes. As the members were told, this was a day ‘to throw our inhibitions to the wind’.

This session of abstract expressionism is one event in a multi-faceted programme laid on every month covering the full spectrum of media and a wide palette of subject matter, from traditional to abstract. ‘We’re a very “hands-on” group,’ says Programme Secretary Doreen Andrews. ‘We concentrate on demos and workshops with professional tutors, occasionally of international repute.’

Vicky Usherwood

Vicky Usherwood - Credit: Ashley Franklin

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These workshops, the members tell me, have been valuable for ‘learning new skills and techniques,’ ‘trying different styles of painting,’ ‘stretching our abilities’ and ‘gaining support, advice and inspiration.’ It’s little wonder the Society membership list of artists is full – with a waiting list.

In 1989, a trio of artists on a WEA course – Margaret and Gilbert Seymour and Margaret Ramsden – sowed the seeds of an art group, forming Matlock Tawney House Artists Society. The 13 artists at the inaugural meeting has risen yearly to the current 52. There is also now a separate Portrait Group. Clearly, one of the reasons the Society thrives is that artists can share in their passion. ‘Painting and drawing can be a lonely hobby,’ says Treasurer Anne Steer, ‘so it’s good to join up with enthusiastic, like-minded people to both pass on and pick up ideas.’

There are even further benefits of membership, according to the members. ‘This is a place of warmth, laughter, fellowship and friendship,’ says Joyce Renner.

‘Surrounded by so many talents, I am always striving to achieve,’ enthuses Rita McDonagh.

Matlock Bath by Les Mooney

Matlock Bath by Les Mooney - Credit: Ashley Franklin

‘My painting has come on in leaps and bounds, all due to the encouragement and inspiration I get from the members,’ says Les Mooney. Les is one of several members to have had pictures selected for regional exhibitions. Other successes include: Ken Spencer, who achieved three awards at the annual Patchings Exhibition as well as its Public Choice award; Wendy Diprose, who won the Landscape Award at the Arts in the Gardens exhibition in Sheffield; and Rowena Payne, winner of the Derbyshire Life Prize at the last Derby City Open with one of her dynamic wildflower paintings. A further notable national achievement is Society President Carol Hill’s selection in recent years for several of the Society of Women Artists annual exhibitions in the Mall Galleries in London.

Carol, who travels around the country conducting workshops and demonstrations at various art groups and societies, declares that the Matlock Artists Society is ‘in the top league’. ‘I love that fact that members come from all walks of life, and range from beginners to advanced painters,’ Carol points out. ‘It’s also such a friendly and welcoming society with tremendous enthusiasm; at workshops, they are always willing to have a go at any medium or to try new ideas, and even though everyone works hard on workshop days, there is laughter and encouragement together with helpful critiques by the more experienced painters in the group.’

‘Many members like me will tell you how their love of art has been enhanced by joining the Society,’ says Doreen Andrews. ‘In learning more about art, I have come to love colour, texture and working with different media, even when I am pushed out of my comfort zone. It’s just wonderful to be creative and infused with the ability to see life as an artist. For example, if I behold a fantastic landscape or sky scape, I now see an ever-changing canvas.’

Anne Steer has gained that same sensibility: ‘Driving through the countryside, I now see the views in painterly colours – the cobalt blue in a tree, or the cadmium red in a wall. Painting opens the senses and makes you see things differently.’

Winston Churchill made pretty much the same observation in ‘Painting as a Pastime’: ‘I found myself instinctively as I walked noting the tint and character of a leaf, the dreamy purple shades of mountains, the exquisite lacery of winter branches, the dim pale silhouettes of far horizons. I had lived for over 40 years without noticing any of them except in a general way, as one might look at a crowd and say, “What a lot of people!” I think this heightened sense of observation of nature is one of the chief delights that have come to me through trying to paint.’

One of the delights to have come to many members of Matlock Artists Society is the reward of creating art. ‘I am so happy when painting,’ says Rita McDonagh. ‘It’s so therapeutic.’

‘Not only is it relaxing working on my art, I also find that finishing a piece increases my self-confidence,’ believes Paula Twells.

‘Painting gives me a sense of achievement,’ says Vicki Usherwood, ‘and there is particular pride and satisfaction when someone buys your work and wants to put it on their wall.’

Given the stress of modern living, the case for painting is stronger than ever, argues Wendy Diprose: ‘When I paint, I am taken into another, totally absorbing, world where one forgets everyday things.’

Perhaps it’s not so much that painting has never been away, but more that it is here to stay... just as long as there are groups like the Matlock Artists Society.

Although membership at the Society is currently full, there is a Portrait Group which welcomes new members. Contact Colin Daffern 01629 733261. Also, the Portrait Group is always looking for models. A small fee is paid and sitters usually go home with at least one portrait donated by an artist.