The eyes have it

A couple who revived a corner of Staithes by opening a gallery are playing a steadily greater role in this characterful corner of the coast. Jill Turton reports

When you drop down the steep hill into Staithes and the sun gets lost behind the sturdy stone terraces lining the High Street, the village can sometimes look a bit bleak.

But at the bottom of the hill, the Staithes Gallery is a beacon of warmth, colour and light. Its tall floodlit windows are filled with art: fishing boats in bold blue and white, scarlet lobsters, a metallic sculpture of a hermit crab and a hefty oil painting of an angry sea washing over the northern breakwater. It suggests there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye.

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Dave and Alison Milnes from York started the gallery six years ago. Alison says it doesn’t make a fortune, but by taking one step at a time, they appear to have a small but enduring success on their hands.

Not only that, it is providing inspiration and spin-offs beyond the confines of the gallery. There are residential art courses, a series of convivial dinners and in September, it will play a leading role in the first Staithes Festival of Arts & Heritage.

The story began some 10 years ago when the couple bought an empty shop, a wreck of place, with “no real plan of what to do with it”. But with five bedrooms upstairs, a big shop floor downstairs and a cruck cottage behind, they reckoned there would at least be plenty of space for themselves and their five children.

For five years they commuted at weekends and holidays from the family home in York while they wondered what to do with it. Then as plans for a gallery began to take shape, they spent another two years painstakingly restoring the building, unearthing an old smugglers’ passage in the process. They made the cruck cottage into a one-bedroom self-catering bolt-hole and the former shop into a commercial art gallery.

“There’s a great tradition of painting in the village,” says Alison. “And we’d always bought paintings for ourselves, so the interest was always there, but we had no idea how to run a gallery.”

The tradition of art in Staithes took off in the late 19th and early 20th century when a group of “plein air” impressionist painters – the Staithes Group – came here for the North Sea light, the dramatic location and the rich characters of a highly independent fishing community.

Today their paintings, most famously those of Dame Laura Knight, change hands for thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands, of pounds.

But it was contemporary art that the Milnes were interested in for their new gallery and there’s plenty of it because artists are still magnetically drawn to Staithes.

Their first exhibition was in 2005, appropriately a fund raiser for the local RNLI lifeboat station. “One day it was a building site, the next day it was a gallery,” remembers Alison. “When that finished, we’d nothing to show, so we invited artists with links to the area to submit their work.” Those artists are still the mainstay of the gallery today but now they don’t need to go looking, artists approach them.

“We’re not a typical seaside gallery. The location is a strong theme but we have a lot of flexibility and try to bring in as wide a variety of work and of the highest standard possible.”

The standard is remarkably high for a village the size of Staithes. “It’s the kind of work we would like to buy ourselves,’ says Alison, and they do. Their vast upstairs dining room is crammed with paintings by their featured artists: David Curtis, a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters and the Royal Society of Marine Artists; Rob Shaw, a professional artist living in Staithes who paints bold, dynamic scenes of the village and the seas and has exhibited in London’s Mall Galleries as well as Staithes.

There’s Saltburn-born Ian Burke, who holds the arcane title of Master of the Drawing Schools at Eton College and produces vivid images of lobsters, fish and fishing cobles. Paul Czainski is a trompe l’oeil specialist, with a client list that includes Mick Jagger and Roman Abramovich, who paints witty and surrealist seaside themes from his studio in the village.

It was David Curtis who suggested the gallery-run painting courses. “He told us there was so much to paint in one small geographical area that you could never run out of subject matter – up the beck, down the beck, over the bridge, the cottage rooftops, glimpses through alleyways. He reminded us there were different perspectives and so many ways of looking at the place.”

The Staithes Art School has been a hit and the four-day residential courses are now a well established part of their calendar during the summer months. Students stay in accommodation above the gallery or in cottages in the village. A breakfast hamper is delivered to the cottages, the students paint all day, then after a drink in the Royal George or the Cod and Lobster, they enjoy a three-course dinner at the gallery.

“Lisa cooks a fantastic meal every night and everyone loves it,” says Alison. Lisa is Lisa Chapman who for twelve years was chef/owner of the Endeavour restaurant in the village and propelled it into the Good Food Guide. Now she cooks for private events, for the Staithes Art School and soon from this month for special evening events at the gallery.

There are also plans for a Staithes Festival of Arts and Heritage when church halls and cottage doors will open over the weekend of September 22-23 as pop-up galleries and exhibition spaces in a community-led enterprise aimed at celebrating the village’s unique art and heritage.

Last year the couple bought 1,500 square feet of the redundant Wesleyan Chapel in the village. Once again they claim to have no real plan of what to do with it. Something remarkable no doubt.

Staithes Gallery, High Street, Staithes TS13 5BH. Open: Wed, Thur, Sat, Sun 10am-5pm. 01947 841840.

Staithes Festival of Arts and Heritage, Sat & Sun September 22 & 23.