As his work on Harrogate’s Royal Hall comes to an end, Phil Penfold catches up with master craftsman David Venables.
It is strange to think, muses David Venables, that a country lad whose backyard when still a child was the great sweep of Hadrian’s Wall, “should so much enjoy urban life – and its people”.
He was 12 when the family moved down to South Yorkshire. It’s where his roots have been ever since and it’s where he first began forging a career as an artist, lying about his age to secure a place at college when he was just 14.
Few are able to make a living from art, but David is one of the lucky ones and for the last few years he’s been involved in the interior restoration of Harrogate’s Royal Hall. David was called in to give expert advice on what could be done to replace the many murals and painted panels, and then commissioned to carry out the sympathetic refurbishment. It wasn’t easy. Two of the major pieces, there since the building opened in the early years of Edwardian England were on tapestry, and had rotted away. Others had been over-painted so many times that the original was frequently hidden under layers of paint. And then, he says wryly, “we come to the issue of the nicotine. When the building opened as The Kursaal – a name still on the frontage – audiences and punters puffed away through each performance. When David attempted to gently sponge down the paintwork, it left a thick brown sludge trickling down the walls.
“It was designed by that amazing man, Frank Matcham, and is one of his last buildings”, says David. “Every one of his buildings that remains today is a wonder of invention, but he was not a great one for keeping records of the finer details. There was no exact record of what his original ideas were when it came to the interior decorations. We had to rely on a lot of painstaking physical research, taking minute sample after minute sample, and a tiny handful of black and white photographs.”
One thing David is certain of is that the move to rescue the Royal Hall came just in the nick of time and for him it’s been much more than just a simple restoration project.
“I really do think that, had work not been started as soon as it was, a strong gale would have brought the whole thing down. It was in a parlous state of repair,” he says.
“I have really enjoyed the research that you have to do into projects like this. It’s the moment when you have three great big doors in front of you, all of them locked, and you wonder: ‘Where the heck am I going from here?’ and then you notice a big bunch of keys that have been thrown in a corner, and you think: ‘Will anyone of these fit that one there, or over there?’ And lo and behold, a door swings open, and you begin to get a few answers”.
Over the years his expertise, keen eye and uncompromised, unflustered patience have taken him to venues all over Yorkshire, from York’s Castle Museum to Harrogate’s Pump Room, the Georgian Theatre in Richmond and Harewood House. David has also worked on the Canadian High Commission in London and at the property occupied by the internationally famous jewellers, Asprey’s in New Bond Street. There, he had one of the strangest encounters of his life.
“The premises had once been home to the celebrated Victorian actor Henry Irving”, he explains. “Every evening I’d put the things I was working with safely back on to the shelves. One night just before we closed up, all the brushes I used, the very soft ones, were laid out as if they were on an actor’s dressing table. In perfect lines. Precise. And each was next to a colour that a performer would use. Skin tones, chalk-white, black eye-liner...it was very deliberate – and it made my spine tingle, I admit it.”
Now the Royal Hall is nearly completed, David is just finishing the final brush-strokes to a mural behind one of the bars that – in earlier days – led out onto the gardens. To create it, he went back and studied photos and railway posters of the early 1920s, and the scene is one of Harrogate folk enjoying themselves in the immediate years after the Great War. He has also taken the opportunity to incorporate a little Venables family history into the fabric. Two of the cherubs in one of the decorations bear the faces of his two grandchildren, Henry and Grace. “They haven’t seen it yet,” he smiles, “because they live in Weymouth, but they will – soon.”
The hall now glows thanks to the 76,000 squares of gold leaf applied to some of the plasterwork, but its real heart comes from a man who, alongside everything else, is organising a new exhibition at Durham University, where he is an artist in residence, and also a new outdoor mural on what is, at present, a slightly forbidding exterior wall that runs for about half a block of unprepossessing brick. Then there’s another exhibition planned very soon on David’s smaller artworks, called Working Lives, which will feature subjects that he has encountered over the last half century in Doncaster.
It is difficult to pin him down on what gives him the most satisfaction, because he just loves creating objects that people will come and see for years, decades, hopefully centuries to come. But he says: “I love it when I get involved with people working on projects like the Royal Hall. It’s such great teamwork. And, when I hear the apprentices come in to show their mates what’s been going on, and I hear them say: ‘Look, that’s what that bloke has been up to – bloody great, innit?’ How could that not fail to make anyone’s day special?”