Tea and cake with the Great Rollright collective
- Credit: Archant
Candia McKormack spends an enjoyable couple of hours with some of the artists exhibiting in Great Rollright as part of this year’s Oxfordshire Artweeks
I have a feeling a lot of cake will be consumed in Great Rollright this month.
I think possibly quite a lot of cake is consumed every month in Great Rollright, but this month, particularly the second week (May 10-18), is going to be sponge central. Battenberg base. Dacquoise dell. Fondant fancy farm. Tarte tatin town.
It’s very easy to get side-tracked when talking about cake, which is exactly what happens while sitting around a farmhouse kitchen table in Great Rollright with four of the artists exhibiting as part of this year’s Oxfordshire Artweeks.
The worst culprit by far is fine artist from Naunton, David Blakemore – one of the “newbies” to Artweeks, as painter Cleo Carruthers puts it, who is herself exhibiting for the first time. David says he was “seduced by the lure of cake” but, as vices go, you can get a whole lot worse. The smell of oil paint can be quite alluring, I believe. Also joining us around the table are painter Jan Wilkinson and ceramicist Penny Varley; though I’m loath to use the term “oldies”, they’ve both been involved with Artweeks for some years
“Cleo came round as a visitor last year,” says Jan, who lives in Great Rollright. “She said she’d be interested in exhibiting, but when we saw the scale of her paintings we were worried that we wouldn’t have the space to do them justice in the village hall!”
Fortunately, the perfect venue was found, which could show off Cleo’s large-scale pieces, in the form of the Old Beer House Chapel with its wonderfully high ceilings. She’ll be sharing the space with Penny, plus jewellery-maker Sally Davis and Julia Thorne who does lamp- and bead-work. The other venues scattered around the lovely village of Great Rollright are The Shrubbery; The Farmstead; the Village Hall; and Tyte Court, where we’re sitting today as the guests of photographer Jane Stillwell, talking cake and art.
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It’s lovely sitting here, at the old pine table in the Court’s spacious kitchen, surrounded by a group of artists who have quite obviously become good friends. The banter flows as readily as the tea and coffee, and select pieces of artwork are scattered across surfaces and propped against table legs. Twenty-three artists are exhibiting at Great Rollright alone, as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks, which has been established for over 30 years; the 132-page free festival guide is an indication of the scale and diversity of talent taking part in the three-week-long event. Across the three weeks and the whole of the county, there will be more than 400 exhibitions and events being held in varying locations, from city studios and galleries to village halls and barns. Visitors will have the opportunity to not only meet the artists, finding out about how they work and the inspiration behind their pieces, but will also have the chance to take home a unique piece of artwork, direct from the creator themselves.
Obviously I can’t do justice to everything that’s going on across the whole of Artweeks, but as I’m here as a guest of the Great Rollright gang, I find out more about how they work…
Jan Wilkinson has been a professional artist for 45 years, has been taking part in Artweeks since 2009, and now helps organise the Village Hall show. With 11 artists at this venue alone, it’s no mean feat, but everyone pulls together to make it a success. “We’re a democratic group,” she laughs, “but I keep order!” And they’re not only a democratic group, they’re an eclectic one too, with media ranging from paintings and photography to wood, glass and jewellery. Jan herself paints mostly animals and, via commissions, does a faithful representation of clients’ pets. Although she tends to work from photographs, she seems to have a knack for capturing the essence of her subjects.
“I very rarely see the animal and I don’t know how or why, but I can get a ‘feeling’ about the animal through the photograph. Sometimes it can be difficult,” she continues, “and I don’t feel like the animal is ‘giving me’ anything, and then suddenly something spooky happens and it’s as if the animal is yielding to being looked at.”
She paints in pastels and oils and her subjects range from horses to fox hounds to pet dogs, and the occasional person. And, although Jan is wonderfully modest, we manage to wheedle out of her that one of her portraits – that of the Queen Mother’s favourite brood mare – is currently hanging in Clarence House and she has a hand-written letter of thanks as confirmation.
“I do love Artweeks,” she says. “The original idea was to introduce the public to artists working in their own studios and not in galleries, which can be stuffy. We don’t all have the luxury of our own studios, but what we can do is to meet people, make them feel welcome and hopefully have them leave thinking ‘Ooh, I could do that!’”
Based at the bottom of Edge Hill in Warwickshire, the ceramicist and potter Penny Varley has a garden studio in Tysoe and gains inspiration from the natural world around her. After 25 years of working for the Civil Service, she bit the bullet in 2005 and launched her business ‘Penny Varley Ceramics’.
“I’m ‘allowed’ to do Oxfordshire,” she laughs, “as I’m a member of an art group in Banbury and, as I’ve known Jan for some time, I managed to coerce them into letting me part of the Great Rollright group.
“I started potting in the 1980s, with great aspirations of being a famous potter, as you do when you’re young, and then realised that I needed money to be able to set up a studio, so I joined the Civil Service.”
Penny went on to travel the country while working for the Fraud Department, where she trained fraud investigators. This gave her the qualifications to be able to teach, and so now she is able to pass on her pottery skills to students as well as create for herself and others.
Her work ranges from organic forms to domestic ware, with her work being sold at the Tourist Information Centre in Banbury and at a design studio in Shipston-on-Stour. She’s recently started making stoneware outdoor sculptures too, and combines her work with that of a blacksmith who lives in the same village.
“It’s all about networking and keeping things local,” she says, “I think that’s really, really important.”
David Blakemore has been a professional artist for four years, moving from London to the Cotswolds to set up his studio here in 2012.
“Art has always been in my blood,” he says. “My father was an art director in the film industry a long, long time ago, and my mother was a professional photographer, which is the trade I started in, mainly for artistic reasons, and then became more commercial.”
He moved back to London, which is where he’s originally from, and “somehow drifted into a family restaurant.” As he puts it he “created this monster that went on for far too many years, although it was a lot of fun.” The restaurant was in West Hampstead where he was surrounded by art and film people, so feeding his desire to re-enter the art world. And so David went on to study for three years at the renowned Lavender Hill Studios in Clapham.
“My first ever commission was a dog – a Guinness-drinking spaniel,” he says, “then one thing led to another and I found myself doing animal commissions, but I wanted to do more.” He began to paint more still life paintings and landscapes, often incorporating quirky details, reflecting his love for reportage. Then his desire to be close to the landscapes he loved prompted him to move to the Cotswolds.
“I love to create drama. Using the techniques that I’ve been taught, using extremes of dark and light, I like to create a story in my work.”
He echoes what the other Great Rollright artists feel about the importance of networking, saying, “I soon realised that the area was absolutely littered with artists, and this group have kindly embraced me and allowed me to show the largest body of work I have to date.”
Right from childhood, Bourton-based artist Cleo has enjoyed drawing and making things. At 16 she went to art school in Surrey where she “had a lovely time for about four years” – doing a two-year foundation course, then graphics, and finishing with a fourth year in printing. Feeling that she would never be good enough to make a living out of art, she went on to train as an occupational therapist, always retaining her interest in art.
“I didn’t have the time to get back to it in any meaningful way,” she says, “until in around 2005 when I started painting again.”
She had relatives that had moved to Bourton-on-the-Water and so she spent a good deal of time visiting and consequently developed an interest in it.
“Bourton is bonkers, really,” she says, “I have a great affection for it, but it’s such a strange place. Some people don’t like all the tourists there, but I found it was quite vibrant; it’s filled with all these people who go there to have a good time, and I like that about it.”
Ice creams became an iconic symbol for her, with many tourists enjoying them on their visit to the village, and these appear in many of her pieces. While trying to capture the ‘essence’ of Bourton, her paintings became more and more abstract, using the iconography of the village – images such as ducks and bridges.
After taking a workshop called ‘Unlock your creativity’ with a lady called Roxy Claxton, she decided she wanted to become an ‘urban artist’, being inspired by artists such as Banksy for their wit and energy. This led to works such as ‘The Red Picture – Roxy, Banksy and all my friends’ and a piece called ‘Designated Creative Area’ in which she encourage friends and visitors to her house to contribute, with the only stipulation being that their input should be visible and not shy in any way.
“If I sell the painting,” she laughs, “everyone who has contributed to it will be invited to drinks at the pub with the proceeds.”
Now, that’s true community art in action.
Oxfordshire Artweeks runs from May 3-26 (South Oxfordshire is May 3-11; North Oxfordshire – including Great Rollright – is May 10-18; and Oxford City is May 17-26). Visit www.artweeks.org for more information and to download a copy of the free guide.