Art in Staithes: The illusive catch

The streets of Staithes have become a blank canvas for one Yorkshire artist. Amanda Wragg catches up with Paul Czainski.

Artist Paul Czainski with one of his 3D artworks. Picture by Simon Hulme
Artist Paul Czainski with one of his 3D artworks. Picture by Simon Hulme

Pausing for a moment to recharge his brush, artist Paul Czainski smiles down from his ladder. “Local legend has it that beautiful mermaids held captive by village fishermen were blamed for coastal erosion – they cursed them as they were released back into the sea. My mermaids always seem to look benign, beautiful and just a bit sexy…”

Paul’s ladder is propped up against a fisherman’s cottage in Staithes, where they’re cranking up for the third Festival of Arts and Heritage; his trompe l’oeil (literally “trick of the eye”) mermaid is emerging out of the 200-year-old stone over the front door. She is one of eight artworks commissioned by the North York Moors National Park which will become the Staithes Illusion Trail, essentially a treasure hunt designed to lead visitors up and down the narrow cobbled streets and alleyways looking for his paintings.

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Amongst them is a seagull that looks so lifelike you feel it’s going to fly off as you approach it, a prehistoric deer skeleton (“I saw this fossil in the Oxford Museum of Natural History and immediately knew it was meant for Staithes,” says Paul, who has nicknamed him Fido) and a “plaque” of Laura Johnson, later to become Dame Laura Knight, the world-famous artist who came to the village in the late 19th century and who with Harold Knight (whom she later married) formed the Staithes Group.

Artist Paul Czainski with one of his 3D artworks. Picture by Simon Hulme

Paul says: “She was the obvious place to start the trail. She needed to make her presence felt and I expect she was rather disgruntled at not having a plaque in the village before now.”

Trompe l’oeil is a highly realistic style of painting requiring meticulous attention to detail in order to make the flat surface appear three-dimensional, and Czainski is a master of the art. Born in Dewsbury, he studied fine art at Leeds College of Art and Goldsmiths in London and straight out of college was catapulted into the stratosphere, working with top interior designers of the time and quickly becoming one of the most sought-after specialists in the world.

He has worked in some of the grandest houses – Chatsworth, Hampton Court Palace, Spencer House, Eaton Hall and for the Sitwells and Rothschilds. He’s a bit rock and roll too, counting Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Roman Abramovich and Nicky Haslam amongst his clients.

So what inspires him? He laughs. “All kinds of things. Pattern, decorative effects, chiaroscuro [the use of strong contrasts between light and dark] and the fantastic. I like to tell a story with my paintings, bringing out the hidden beauty or the thrill of the ordinary. I love the challenge of trompe l’oeil and trying to paint things that look more real than real.”

Paul and his artist wife Chris (collectively known as the Fabulous Czainskis) live and work in a stunning converted congregational church in Warley, near Halifax, which is bursting with their art; Paul’s murals and still lives and Chris’s particularly quirky take on religious iconography hang throughout. Their cottage and studio in Staithes inspires different work including Paul’s surrealist portrayals of seaside themes – fish sitting on chairs, reading, and the wonderfully witty Neptune’s Washing Line.

The Illusion Trail will be launched at the Staithes Festival with a guided walk to view all eight works. The Czainskis have been stalwarts of the event since its inception two years ago, throwing open their cottage door to visitors keen to see their artwork.

What is it like having hundreds of people trooping round your house? “We don’t mind it at all – people are usually really interested and friendly, we sometimes sit them in the kitchen and have a cuppa,” smiles Paul, by nature open and warm. “It’s just great to share this amazing North Yorkshire coastline and all its charms with as many folk as possible. And they don’t have to buy anything!”

The Czainskis are just two of the 130 artists exhibiting at this year’s festival. There is a pool of talent amongst residents – Tony Murphy, Niamh Hanlon, Lucy Wilson and others will be showing their work. Redcar-born Ian Burke, the drawing master at Eton, who has a home nearby, has a new exhibition and will be running art workshops. Visiting artists include ceramicist Jo Davda, bringing her beautifully glazed handmade tableware (see them in Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay cookbooks) to the Old Bethel Chapel, now a stunning home.

But Paul has another “illusion” to complete. He takes his ladder over the bridge and heads towards the towering Cowbar cliff. Above a pair of insignificant garage doors is a weathered old beam on which he creates an exquisitely rendered Noah’s Ark – it’s quite ghostly and seems to emerge from the grain of the wood, as if it’s been there for decades.

“I love these primitive, simple images which is why I depicted the story this way – with a familiar naivety that I’m hoping will appeal to both adults and children.”

In another hidden corner of the village, a beautiful mermaid, this time from Cornwall. “I borrowed this image from a carved chair back in the church in Zennor. It’s said to be the chair a mermaid sat on when she visited in disguise and enchanted one of the local youths with her beauty and sweet voice. I don’t know how that story ended up…”

• Staithes Arts & Heritage Festival, September 13 and 14, 10am-5pm with evening events. Free entry.

Paul Czainski’s guided Illusion Trail is on Saturday, leaving from the information office in the High Street at 10am.