Published on June 16th, 2015 | by Alastair Gilmour


A glass full of exhibition

Pubs are terrific settings for art shows, as Alastair Gilmour discovers

When Cheers interviewed artist Ben Holland for the June 2012 magazine, he made a particularly pertinent comment. “You go to the pub much more often than you go to an art gallery,” he said.

Ben draws pubs and he often exhibits in pubs, so he’s perhaps a wee bit biased, but there’s a world of difference between viewing work in a bar – drink in hand – than creeping around the hushed atmosphere of a room full of studious people. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but in reality pubs are the perfect setting for appreciating art. Pubs in Sheffield discovered this a few years ago – and there are a lot of fine ones in that city – when art lovers set up a Pub Scrawl. Organised tours slipped between them with a chance to buy there and then. The rationale was that people might make decisions on artworks in a pub that they might not in a gallery.

Pubs, like any other businesses, need to create more ways of attracting custom and to keep it. Funding cuts mean, for instance, that local authority galleries have had their opening times curtailed (to say nothing of staff reductions), while the highly-regarded annual North East Art Tour has been cancelled this summer – in its 20th year to boot. So what better time than for our pubs to offer wall space to established and upcoming artists? The Head of Steam group has cottoned on to this and has sent out an invitation to the region’s painters and illustrators to present their wares. It’s a god-given initiative for the likes of Keith Opie whose Bridges Project collection is being presented this month at The Central in Gateshead, together with Pete Barlow’s Northern Giant series. This art trail, which is expected to include other venues in The Head of Steam group of pubs, kicked off in April with a Ben Holland show called Low Moon Over High Town.

Keith Opie, an illustrator and director at Paul Windle Design (appropriately based in Old Brewery Court in Newcastle’s Sandyford), says inspiration came from a lack of shut-eye.

Keith says: “I started these works as I’m a bit of an insomniac and I needed something to wind down. I like doing the Tyne bridges because I pass them every day on my bike on my way to work.”

It’s also a nice change from the day-job illustrating characters and images for Warner Bros, Disney, Hasbro and Tomy.

“I’ve always been attracted to architecture,” he says of an extraordinary rendering of the Theatre Royal. “Pictures in pubs are a great talking point; people can access them easily and this kind of thing gives younger people the opportunity to get their work seen by a wider audience. I’m excited about it at my age, so for a young fella it would be fantastic.”

Daisy Turnell, marketing manager for Cameron’s Brewery is adamant pubs walls just lend themselves to exhibitions. Combine that with the need from artists for space to express themselves and you have the beginnings of a trend.

“The Cluny in Newcastle has always been known for its artworks and regular exhibitions, but places like Ernest on the Ouseburn Valley are also great supporters of artists and local talent,” says Daisy. “Some pubs perhaps don’t know there’s an artist living and working just down the street.

“We’d eventually like to work with university and college students. The potential is enormous. Putting on exhibitions is also a great way of getting people to photograph your pub and share the painting or sculpture on social media. After all, we now have people going to the cinema for screenings of opera and ballet, so this is opening art right out.”

Permanent hangings at St Mary’s Inn near Stannington in Northumberland include some fine works by Norman Cornish, who was often dubbed “the pitman painter” though he never cared for that description, even though the bulk of his subject matter was mining communities at work, play and in sociable mood in pubs and clubs. Some gloriously funny framed drawings by Times cartoonist David Haldane also provide a terrific backdrop to the gastropub. Similarly, when you sit down to enjoy your pint in The Black Horse in Low Fell, Gateshead, you soon realise you’re in the midst of a small art gallery with North East-inspired works by local artist Jim Harker looking awfully like something out of a classic catalogue. Jim is a freelance illustrator but following a few drinks, he and co-owner Chris Robinson got talking about using the pub walls as an art gallery – something different to prompt conversation.

“We came up with the scenario that if famous painters had come to Newcastle what would they have painted,” says Jim. “For instance, I thought if Claude Monet came here he would maybe stay at Malmaison on the Quayside so I painted a picture of the Tyne Bridge from there in his style. I also imagined Vincent Van Gogh would have painted his sunflowers displayed in a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale.”

But it’s not only pubs that can use art as a conversation piece and visitor attraction. Ford Escort With Lamp Post Through Bonnet is a surreal artwork in the car park of the Glenfiddich distillery in Scotland.

art-printThe handiwork of Spanish artist and “spatial sculptor” Luis Bisbe uses a car that once belonged to the distillery’s art programme coordinator Andy Fairgrieve (Glenfiddich has a long-running and acclaimed artist-in-residence scheme). It has been sitting in the car park since 2007 but has fallen victim to plans to resurface the area. However, visitors to the distillery will still be able to see the piece if they visit this summer.

The 25-foot tall lamp doesn’t actually work; when all the other lights are illuminated the car’s headlights come on instead. Distillery staff like telling visitors that workmen installing the lamp posts simply couldn’t be bothered to move the vehicle.

If they don’t want the Escort, wouldn’t it look great outside a North East pub?

On examining Keith Opie’s highly-detailed works, it becomes apparent that there’s a cyclist in almost every one of them – which Keith admits is himself. “The vans and trucks crossing the bridges are from local firms and I always include myself on my bike somewhere,” he says.

We’re on to something here – Ben Holland’s “signature” is a small star in the sky, while in The Central’s bar, the permanent collection of railway and steam locomotive paintings by Arthur Gills includes a West Ham United badge like something out of Where’s Wally.

Ben Holland says: “I’ve got a friend called Simon Bartram who’s a children’s book illustrator and he puts a Sunderland strip somewhere in his drawings. You’ll suddenly see a red-and-white striped zebra in the background.”

“We don’t want our exhibitions to become too elitist,” says Daisy Turnell. A glass full of exhibitions like the three at The Central knocks that notion on the head straight away.


*The Central, Half Moon Lane, Gateshead NE8 2AN www.theheadofsteam.co.uk

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Alastair Gilmour

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