Digging up a different kind of Yorkshire holiday

John Oxley, York City Archaologist at the Yorkshire Museum Gardens in York.
John Oxley, York City Archaologist at the Yorkshire Museum Gardens in York.
  • One is an artist famed for demolishing a bungalow, the other is an archaeologist. Together they hope to bring a different kind of holiday to Yorkshire. Julian Cole reports.
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Imagine a sign planted where two roads meet. One direction reads “art” and the other says “archaeology”. Kane Cunningham sits at this junction painting what lies before him, while John Oxley casts a knowing eye over the landscape. After that, likely as not, they’ll head to the nearest pub for a lively natter about what they have seen. We are in a pub now as it happens, the revamped Chapter House Bar at the Royal York Hotel. The talk is animated; outside the window the evening traffic crawls by and a police siren rips a hole in the night.

Art and archaeology, Kane and John. You may remember Kane as the artist who in 2009 paid £3,000 for a condemned clifftop house at Cayton Bay, near Scarborough, so that he could turn it into a studio and an installation known as the House Project. Three years later he paid as much again to have it demolished.

Money well spent, insists Kane, 54. “I still get emails, I still get postcards, I still get letters and I’m on the opening credits of a TV series called Salvage Hunters, on Quest TV. I’ve been on TV twice a week for practically five years and that gets seen all over the world. It’s phenomenal exposure really.”

Archaeology and art, John and Kane. John is the City of York archaeologist – admired and acclaimed in a role he has held for 26 years. Born and bred in Darlington, the 58-year-old cuts a striking figure with long free-flowing grey hair and beard.

During his time in York, John has overseen significant digs and helped to foster a greater understanding of the city’s long history. He has also worked in Russia and appeared on the TV programme Time Team.

The pair are friends and now they are business partners too in the art and archaeology travel company Palette & Trowel. With this new venture, Kane and John would like to take you away for the weekend to paint and learn about the lie of the land, to have a drink or two, and to share stories and enjoy their company.

Each has his own discipline, but everything crosses over, as we shall see.

First, with that siren blaring, it is time to ask how they met.

“It was at a strip club in Venice,” says Kane, producing a burst of laughter from both of them. “I noticed an English accent and it was John. And once he’d put his clothes back on…”

Their conversation is like that: interesting and full of insight, and peppered too with nuggets of silliness.

The true story is more prosaic. They met seven years or so ago at the Sand Street Gallery in Scarborough. Kane moved to the town from his native Manchester in 1996. “A friend of mine said: ‘Be careful with Scarborough – it’s the velvet ditch. It’s that comfortable you won’t want to leave’.”

As living proof of this statement, Kane is still there, and still teaching art.

At that opening in the seaside town, the pair struck up a conversation. “I made the mistake of mentioning post-processualism to him,” says John.

Understandably enough, the phrase puzzled Kane. “I looked it up in the dictionary and realised this guy knows what he’s talking about.”

The writer of this article scuttled off to Google and discovered something about the subjectivity of archaeological interpretation.

The idea for Palette & Trowel came about in another pub (there are a few in this tale). “As is so often the case, we’d been sat chewing the cud and said wouldn’t it be nice to have some sort of event where we could bring these things together,” says John. “And for once in our lives we actually drove this forward and made this happen.”

The first weekend was at Ravenscar last year, and three more events are planned this year. The aim is to attract people who are interested in art, archaeology or both. “There’s a wonderful overlap between art and archaeology,” says John, who twinkles once in his conversational stride. “I think this is one of the things we kicked off with, a conversation about how archaeology is fundamentally a creative process.

“You know it delves into lots of scientific techniques and it colonises territory occupied by scientists. But fundamentally archaeology is about making observations and turning those observations into some form of narrative, and that’s what you do as an artist.”

After the Ravenscar weekend Kane and John thought they were onto something. “John is passionate about archaeology and he also has an artistic interpretation of the landscape,” says Kane, who points out that his friend is a good photographer too.

“I’m interested in art and the landscape because I’m a landscape painter. John’s very good at explaining the nooks and crannies of the landscape and gives me a much greater understanding.”

Both men like to examine what they are looking at, John by interpreting the landscape, and Kane by wondering what lies beneath the scene before him, in terms of shifting social history and the effect of politics, say.

John saw Ravenscar as an ideal location for their debut weekend thanks to its depth of history and archaeology, with its prehistoric and industrial landscape, and the ghostly traces of the clifftop town that was never built. The phantom remains of what might have been form part of the attraction for John. “You can look at the layout and see how it was intended to be used. Then you can see how because of the way its original intention failed, subsequent uses have taken it on, how you get this layering on top.”

This lesson, says John, applies to ancient digs too, and he regards it as a good introduction to thinking about what you are seeing, the layered puzzles in rock and earth.

John and Kane will be back in Ravenscar in September. Other events for this year are York: Untold Stories in July, and Lake District: Explore The Sublime in September. In York guests can paint with Kane and explore York with John, the city’s best-known guide to the past.

“Saturday morning, first thing we’re going to do is go up Clifford’s Tower and that gives us instantly a panorama and that opens up a whole series of conversations about the city and how you look at the city. And how other artists have looked at the city in the past,” says John.

“Then we’re going to make our way through the town to the Minster and in the afternoon we’ll then split… painting with Kane or looking at the Roman city with me.”

On the Sunday, John intends to explore the ceremonial route royalty follows when in York, specifically relating to August 29, 1443 when Richard III entered the city. “I want to use that particular day to explore what was happening. To be able to look at the city and see sights, buildings and places that Richard III would have seen, and then to use that as a way of reflecting on what that means in terms of the city today.”

Kane will consider how York has been portrayed through history, while offering tips on what past painters, including John Piper, can teach today’s artists.

The final trip of the year will be to the Lakes, where John and Kane will stay with guests at the Lodore Falls Hotel in Borrowdale, overlooking Derwentwater.

So why the Lake District? “We just love the Lakes,” says Kane. “Turner, Ruskin, Wordsworth – it’s a romantic place, and you are in awe of that landscape, and then you turn that into a painting.”

For John, the interest lies also in the notion of the perfect English landscape and our false concept of the wild. “In fact, these spaces are all the product of human action in the landscape.”

He wants to lead the group to key sites such as the Bowder Stone and Castlerigg Stone Circle. “Where we run naked round the stones,” says Kane.

“I told you about that last time,” says John.

What the weekends promise is serious enjoyment, according to Kane.

“It’s about having fun but it’s also about people sharing experiences of landscape. But people are spending their hard-earned cash on this and we want them to enjoy themselves and have a lovely weekend.”

With or without naked running round stone circles…

Find out more about Palette & Trowel weekend breaks and the cost of courses at paletteandtrowel.co.uk or send an email to info@paletteandtrowel.co.uk