Art gallery will be new heart of family farm

Art does not usually fit with agriculture but one farmer believes he is on to a winning combination as he prepares to open a gallery. Chris Berry went to visit.

Gymnasium, swimming pool or art gallery? It's unlikely that the nuns of the 12th century would have considered these options when they built their Cistercian priory at Syningthwaite, near Wetherby.

Moving on eight centuries, farmer David Rawlings and his family have chosen the art gallery option and in two weeks' time, in what was a derelict barn, they will launch their first Art at the Priory weekend.

The move into the art world is the latest step in what has been a decade of change at Syningthwaite Priory Farm. There's now a range of industrial units where the traditional farm buildings used to be and seven holiday cottages around the Priory courtyard which were previously stables, granaries and byres.

Four generations of David's family has farmed here, originally under his mother's maiden name of Burniston and latterly as Rawlings. The farm itself is still a commercial agricultural concern of 500 acres between the nearby villages of Walton and Wighill. It was grassland farm in the time of David's late father and is now 99 per cent arable. The 25 sheep that comprise today's livestock munch what remains of its grassland days, but David is keen to stress he has not abandoned farming for alternative enterprise.

"I'm still a committed farmer," he says. "During the '70s and '80s, arable farmers made enough from the sale of crops to enjoy the rewards from our efforts. But in the intervening years, things have got tighter and that has seen the farm evolve and go with the times. I have always envisaged something like what we have now. But I have never been disillusioned with farming. Indeed the farm is helping support the new business.

"We have always been conscious of maximising our assets. In our case it's a matter of looking around at what we have and the uses we can put things to. The traditional buildings we were using to house pigs weren't really suited for pigs or farming. That's when we started to think about providing commercial buildings and we currently have five businesses trading from here."

The Priory Barn is the home for the new arts venue. David says: "We had planned the barn as a reception area, but we weren't exactly sure about what it was going to receive. The plan was originally to have a swimming pool and a gymnasium but we had to make some severe cuts in our budget just prior to commencing the build. We also had to cut my plans to refurbish the Priory itself.

"My intention had been to put the swimming pool idea back into the development but as it progressed we realised that it wasn't the best idea. People started telling us that what we had here would make this a great place to get married. We took a few late bookings where people had been let down. They went well and we've done around 10 weddings in the past year."

The barn is now the impressive centrepiece of the Rawlings' scheme with 30 weddings booked for this year. They now have a civil ceremony licence for weddings and their first is scheduled for the end of this month. Serena, David's eldest daughter, runs the cottage and wedding business.

The Art at the Priory idea had been rumbling around in David's head for a while. He's a confirmed art enthusiast who admits that he is no expert, but knows what he likes. "I appreciate what I believe is good art and I enjoy going around galleries. If I'm visiting a major city such as New York, St Petersburg, Berlin or Paris I will always try and take a look around theirs. I appreciate the classics and really anything that is pleasing to the eye. I'd say I'm more veering towards portraits and landscapes overall.

"This place lends itself to a gallery with ceiling to floor windows offering perfect lighting. I hope Art in the Priory will be seen as a first-class arts venue to promote artists' work.

"We have stayed with Yorkshire artists for our first exhibition, including Nikky Corker and four others from around the county."

The refurbishment of the barn and the courtyard buildings, plus the new business and new ventures they are bringing about, are invigorating for David and his family and he is hoping they will lead to something further.

"I have always wanted to live in the Priory itself but it requires a lot of work. It is a really nice building and there is a Georgian half which could be brought back into use reasonably well.

"Sometimes it seems as though what we are doing here is a case of taking one step forward to getting in there while taking half a step back. But we are progressing."

Art at the Priory: Saturday January 22 and Sunday January 23, 10am-4pm, admission is free.

Syningthwaite Priory, Rudgate, near Wetherby LS24 8BL. Rudgate is the road directly opposite Thorp Arch Trading Estate if travelling on the Walton-Wighill road.

The Syningthwaite nuns' story

The Cistercian convent of St Mary was founded in

about 1160 by Bertram Haget and was chronically in debt by the time that Henry VIII ordered it to be suppressed in 1535.

At the Dissolution there were nine nuns living there – the prioress, eight servants and other labourers.

The priory was originally enclosed by a moat and

the survival of part of the original structure is reckoned by experts to be exceptional.

It may have been used by the nuns as an open hall, possibly as the prioress's lodging or as a refectory.

CW 8/1/11