Exploring Cheltenham's stylish Montpellier quarter
- Credit: Tracy Spiers
Tracy Spiers explores Regency Cheltenham’s eclectic art quarter.
If I was to paint the feature you are about to read, then it would be a mix of Jackson Pollock’s energetic splashes mixed with Picasso’s figurative gestures and punctuated with Kandinsky’s geometric rhymical shapes. Yet even if my colour choice was vibrant and my composition enticing and engaging, I would still struggle to capture the essence of what I want to say.
So, I put my brush down and use my fingers to type in musical enthusiasm on my computer keyboard, because creative and artistic opportunities are in the air.
A few months ago, I wrote about the colours of Cheltenham, and today I revisit this but in a more targeted way. It’s the palette of Montpellier that I am concentrating on. For years this quarter of the Regency spa town has been a celebrated area for tourists and shoppers, and well-known for its exquisite bars, restaurants, coffee houses and specialist shops which include independent fashion, antiques, and lifestyle boutiques.
Montpellier’s most iconic Regency feature, The Caryatids – supportive architectural columns shaped like ‘armless ladies’ – grace the façades of the chic boutiques in Montpellier Walk. Loosely based on classical models on the Acropolis in Athens, they date from 1840 and are a form of decoration used extensively in 19th-century France. In all, there are 32; two were originally terracotta sculptures, the work of a London artist, the rest were copied by a Cheltonian.
In recent years, Montpellier has gained a reputation as an artisan community, and as I visit today, evidence shows that it is now ‘arty’ and artisan, and growing as a specialist art quarter of Cheltenham. Two brand-new galleries have appeared since lockdown, and a new owner has taken over a gallery set up a few years ago. Within a short walk, there are now five main galleries where artists can show their work and onlookers can appreciate it.
There’s no doubt lockdown has helped folk rekindle a passion for the arts, not only in carrying out their own creative endeavours, but in appreciating the works of others. Let’s face it, we were all starved of real-life exhibitions, concerts, or gatherings of any kind. Whilst the internet provided access to some of the work we would not have necessarily seen, it is not the same as being surrounded by a feast of colour in the flesh.
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Enter Montpellier Gardens, and the art stage unfolds. Whilst the flower beds and winter trees display creation’s artistry, The Gardens Gallery provides a showcase for emerging and established talent, both local and further afield. The day I visit, University of Gloucestershire MA student Rach Hall, a mother of three, is exhibiting work completed during lockdown called Finders and Keepers, a joint project with BA student Sharon Bradford. The university’s enterprise scheme enabled them to publish a book of their work and host the exhibition. It is an interesting and moving mix of photography and found objects, which evokes a response, highlights unspoken narratives, and acts as a visual conversation, challenging us, the viewers, to take note of what is around us. This versatile exhibition space is a community gallery in the refurbished Proscenium Building, which hosts a different art show every week and as a result provides a rich insight into various disciplines which come under the creative umbrella.
‘This space is really important for us because it is so assessable and affordable. It has an established community around it so lots of people can interact with the space,’ says Rach. ‘They are also very open to ‘out of the box’ thinking – we have done a few wacky things before!’
Tom Pettigrew who oversees administration and bookings admits it is a popular venue for the art community.
‘We are a not-for-profit organisation, and our aim is to help everyone in Gloucestershire, giving anyone a chance and that’s important. We have regular exhibitors, but we have new people all the time. We are already fully booked for next year,’ he admits.
Ellie Wardle, owner of The Paragon Gallery, raised an interesting point earlier this year when she mentioned how Norway holds art in such high regard that galleries were allowed to stay open during lockdown because they were considered essential shops. Whilst Norway sees art as key to people’s well-being, it appears Montpellier is recognising its worth too.
A few doors away from Ellie’s gallery – which has been open for almost nine years at 4, Rotunda Terrace, Montpellier Street – two new galleries, Spring Gallery and Sixteen Gallery, have opened in recent months, something she is thrilled about.
‘While we have been here, we have seen people come and go; shops come and go, but what is really exciting for us is that we have these new galleries which are such a great addition to Montpellier. We are becoming more art focussed and we are hoping that will continue to grow. The more galleries we have in the same place the better, because it helps us become a destination for Fine Art,’ says Ellie.
At number 14 Rotunda Terrace is Spring Cheltenham, an artist-run gallery and pop-up space initiated by artist Conrad Clarke. This bright, characterful gallery is housed in an immaculately presented grade II listed building, built over 170 years ago. ‘Half the year we will curate group shows for local and national artists and the other half will be self-represented. We wanted to provide a more eclectic mix of art and help more early and mid-career artists,’ says Conrad, who won Jackson’s Painting Prize 2020, Winner of Emerging Artist Prize.
Two doors away, Sixteen Gallery supports the same ethos as Spring in that it provides rentable space for artists to exhibit their work whilst hosting curated themed exhibitions to show different interpretations by both emerging and established UK artists.
Run by Andy Owen-Smith and his son Arthur, who are both artists, the gallery space will also provide an opportunity for them to show their own work. During lockdown, the father and son team completed renovating the building, launching the gallery with The Portrait, their first curated show around the theme of portrait art, featuring the work of 13 different artists.
‘Future plans we have include staging an exhibition for 20 schools in the area for sixth form students; exhibiting the work of Alzheimer patients to raise awareness of dementia; offering the gallery for one week at half price to a selected emerging artist and next July we are hosting a retrospective of the work of the late Terry Ilott, a former Cheltenham Art College student, and designer of an album cover for Mike Oldfield,’ says Andy.
In December, the gallery will open as a sales opportunity to buy lots of small artworks for Christmas.
‘We appear to be establishing Montpellier as an art quarter of Cheltenham. Within a two-minute walk you have five galleries as well as a coffee shop which has an art area where work is displayed on the walls. It has an exciting vibe about the area, and I would be happy to have even more galleries based here,’ adds Andy.
A short stroll away, Painswick artist Nick Pike enters Park Gallery in Montpellier Avenue, armed with carefully wrapped parcels containing his latest work. There is an element of expectation and surprise as he unpeels the bubble wrap to reveal painted canvases that he has completed during lockdown. His poignant Part of the Furniture painting is a square panoramic interior depicting his girlfriend, almost squashed in their front room, emphasising the claustrophobic, confined feeling many experienced during lockdown.
Becoming the new owner of Park Gallery marks the start of a fresh chapter for Darren Chandler. It’s a venture which he feels will enable him to encourage and support artists, find homes for their works, enjoy their endeavours whilst work is on display and meet people who appreciate the art world. His story into gallery ownership is a moving one. Father of two, Darren sadly lost his wife two years ago to cancer and, having got over the shock of having a major cancer operation himself last year, found himself reconnecting with his natural draftsman and design skills, completing a few portraits during lockdown. When a lifelong friend suggested buying the gallery, he decided to go for it.
‘It’s like coming to my own sweet shop every day. I love the idea of this part of Cheltenham being recognised as an art quarter. Collectively, the galleries of Montpellier complement each other, each offering something different. I’m looking forward to putting my own stamp on Park Gallery. I love meeting the artists and finding out about the lives behind the art,’ says Darren. ‘I do love art, but I didn’t realise how much until I came face to face with it myself.’
Meeting this growing art community and those who are helping to nurture and encourage both creator and buyer is uplifting. But Montpellier’s art is not confined to walls or shelves, jewellery, or sculpture. Edible Art Patisserie, in The Courtyard, Montpellier – the flagship store of Damien Wager who has just opened another business in Bath – is a dazzling exhibition of vivid colour and delight. Each chocolate bonbon, each macaron or petit gateau is a perfect work of art and a visual treat.
This arty artisan part of Cheltenham has a strong, solid, and supportive business community, and shoppers are drawn to its unique independent atmosphere and personal touch. Many come because they know their four-legged friends are welcome. The café culture is an important part of Montpellier. Mother and daughter team, Jess and Abbey Simkiss, who are passionate about dogs, originally ran Archie’s Dog Café & Outfitters, but were forced to close the café side of the business following lockdown. However, they have expanded Archies of Cheltenham, the only dog outfitters of its kind in the area, as a Winter Pop-Up Shop, with the view of opening on a permanent basis at their new home in Montpellier Walk. They offer a bespoke ‘Perfect Fit’ dog harness fitting service as well as providing dog coats, collars, leads and accessories, and are ‘Ivy & Duke,’ dog bed stockists.
‘There’s a real buzz in Montpellier recently, whether you visit during the day or later in the evening,’ says operations manager at Cheltenham BID, Belinda Hunt. ‘The eclectic mix of businesses in this truly Regency quarter of Cheltenham gives it the welcoming, friendly feel you would expect from shopping locally. Barber shops and hair salons sit alongside restaurants, bars, high-end interior design specialists and estate agents, with art galleries and patisseries between them.
‘It’s an exciting time for Montpellier, with lots of new ventures joining the many well-established, independently run businesses and favourite national brands.’
And for now, it seems, it is time for the art galleries to take their bow, and maybe if I return to my attempt to paint a picture of Montpellier at this moment in time, I might add a paw print for good measure.