Since medieval times Bridport’s fortunes have been built on the efforts of farmers, market traders, rope makers and brewers, but for all its agricultural, mercantile and industrial heritage, the town’s artistic legacy has been less well documented.
Bridport was awarded Dorset’s first government-funded art school in 1865, a humble seat of learning that sat on the top floor of the Literary and Scientific Institute in East Street, a Grade II Listed building currently the subject of a £2 million restoration bid by the Bridport Area Development Trust. Its best-known student, Francis (Fra) Newbery went on to become arguably the most distinguished director of the Glasgow School of Art which under his leadership, from 1885 to 1917, attained an international reputation with the flourishing Glasgow Style.
Although he later retired to Corfe Castle, Newbery never lost touch with Bridport and donated several paintings and murals to the town including the Spirit of Bridport, which can be seen in the town hall and lends its name to the broad alliance of councillors, artists and traders that today promotes a range of cultural and sporting activities including the Food Festival, Literary Prize, Bridport Carnival and Melplash Agricultural Show.
Throughout the last century artists continued to come to the area, drawn by the landscapes and the town’s closeness to the sea. Painter Paul Nash and painter/sculptor Eileen Agar – the so-called Seaside Surrealists – were frequent visitors to West Bay while based in Swanage in the 1930s; and in the 1960s and 1970s American abstract expressionist John Hubbard based himself in Bridport, as did experimental photographer John Miles and figurative painter Robin Rae, a former student of Francis Bacon and John Nash. Hubbard and Miles both taught at Symondsbury School of Art, founded in 1984 at the Old Rectory by Ann Barnes and Peter Hitchin, the owner of Symondsbury Manor who had established a college there some years before to offer tutorial-based courses.
‘The School had a range of courses from GCSEs to A-levels and foundation courses and we had a wonderful photographer called Ron Frampton who had a 100 per cent pass rate for his students and was an honorary member of the Royal Photographic Society,’ says Ann Barnes.
‘The School ran until about 1989-90 when the recession hit and student numbers dwindled. That was when I placed an advert in the Artists’ Newsletter for artists to come and live there.’
The Oakhayes art residency took its name from the Old Rectory’s alternative name and found a community of painters, writers, musicians, graphic designers and other artists living and working together. Bridport-based artists Horst Lindenau and Roger Lawrence came to work there, as did as Simon Poulter and Julie Penfold, who went on to set up PVA MediaLab, the digital arts association that nurtures developing artists to produce and exhibit new work.
‘It was a wonderfully rich time,’ says Ann, ‘and because we took a very broad definition of what an artist is we had a very vibrant community of people all feeding off each other’s creativity. There were spats of course, but mainly to do with who had left the kitchen in a mess!
‘The only trouble was artists are notoriously poor and their rents weren’t enough to pay for all the things you need to do to maintain a Georgian mansion, so eventually I had to give them notice to quit which was terribly sad.’
After much restoration the Old Rectory is now let as a weekend venue for private parties, family celebrations and corporate events where recent guests have included Eric Clapton and Jack Straw MP.
‘Oakhayes was a crazy place and completely inspirational,’ says landscape artist Kit Glaisyer who came to visit in the autumn of 1998 – and never left the area. ‘I grew up in North Dorset, but after college in Bournemouth and Farnham I headed for London where I was arting away for years trying to find a voice. I had been doing these really edgy abstracts, it was good work, but when I came to Oakhayes they started to turn out all fluffy and I didn’t want to paint fluffy. As a boy I had gone out painting watercolours with my dad – both my parents were amateur artists – so over time I returned to landscapes.’
Oakhayes closed six months after Kit’s arrival whereupon he took up residency in an abandoned net-making factory on the St Michael’s Trading Estate in Bridport, encouraging other artists to join him in founding the St Michael’s Studios complex, which has evolved as the focus of a renaissance of local artistic activity.
‘I had a couple of big commissions to finish so I needed studio space. St Michael’s was effectively derelict, but it had these incredible spaces – the first room I was shown is still my studio to this day.’
Within a couple of years Andrew Leppard and Caroline Ireland, who inaugurated the annual Bridport Open Studios event, had joined Kit and St Michael’s is now home to around 25 artists, providing a focus for the increasingly energetic – and widely acknowledged – Bridport art scene.
‘Whereas Bridport used to have artists spread throughout the area, St Michael’s has become a hub for this creative activity, a cypher for the scene if you like, but the scene is more than St Michael’s and St Michael’s is more than the scene.’
Other small businesses including antiques dealers, cafes, an upholsterer’s, carpenters, masons, a furniture warehouse, The Trick Factory skatepark, vintage clothing repositories and a recycling centre also operate on the six-acre site.
‘The attraction for artists is that because the buildings aren’t maintained to high-rent standards they make affordable studio spaces. What has grown up is a focal hub for the town’s artistic community, which has expanded as artists have visited and decided to move here.’
But St Michael’s faces an uncertain future as a succession of development proposals have come before the planning authorities.
‘Obviously,’ Kit says, ‘the site is worth much more with planning permission for housing and we have tapped into Bridport’s history of non-conformism to resist those attempts. The fear is that redevelopment would change the nature of the community that has grown up around St Michael’s. Residential concerns will always win out over commercial and there are bound to be complaints about noise that will irrefutably alter the nature of the community here.
‘People in general, not just artists, seem to have forgotten our right to dissent so we have been trying to overturn defeatist attitudes and galvanise the support of the wider community.’
In the last few weeks Kit and other tenants and townspeople have formed Enterprise St Michael’s, a not-for-profit Industrial and Provident Society, to raise the finances with which to buy all or part of the estate with a view to regenerating it as a protected employment space within the town.
‘I’ve been marketing St Michael’s and engaging with the community for years and have built up a range of contacts,’ says Kit. ‘So the plan is to acquire the estate and redevelop it as we want it to be. It’s an enterprise park in the very real sense of the word – there’s something like 200 self-employed people here already, people that are being enterprising in the way they make a living.’
Enterprise St Michael’s aims to develop existing affordable workspaces, restoring the site’s historic buildings and build new work units on the west of the site including a market building, a creative industries incubator, a food sector workspace, an eco-industries and green manufacturing zone, space for skills training and a youth hub, as well as managed office space to support start up for micro-enterprises.
‘Bridport was always a working town, but it’s nearly 50 years since many of the factories closed and the town is changing. Now that St Michael’s is gaining recognition it is contributing greatly to the profile of the town as a whole,’ says Kit.
Whether or not the townspeople of Bridport welcome the attention from further afield is open to debate. The town’s designation as ‘Notting Hill-on-Sea’ continues to divide opinion and Kit is quick to disassociate the art quarter from any such labeling. Enterprise St Michael’s is part of the industrial profile for Dorset supported by the Local Enterprise Partnership. It also intends to develop land on the adjoining riverbank as a public walk and wildlife corridor to deliver community open space for the town.
‘If I came into Bridport when I was at Oakhayes there was a sense that people could spot the artists, but now we are part of the town. Bridport has changed a lot in the last ten years and the Notting Hill thing has become shorthand for a diverse group of people whose energy has galvanised this creative activity, but lasting change has to be unforced, an organic process.’
That diverse group includes writers Horatio and Ioana Morpurgo; affluent incomers like Richard and Nikki Cooper who own the Bull Hotel; local innovators such as Gabby Hitchin at the Electric Palace; film-maker Robert Golden and his writer wife Tina; and Niki McCretton and Marc Parrett whose Stuff and Nonsense puppet company has bought the Lyric Theatre.
Chris Day, owner of The Pierrepoint art gallery in South Street, has closely observed the evolution of the town’s artistic fortunes in the ten years since he opened: ‘There are exciting things going on in Bridport, especially down at St Michael’s. It’s a treat to be surrounded by such wonderful work and to be part of such a spirit of enterprise, it gives the place a real sense of community,’ he notes.
It also requires boundless energy and enthusiasm. With his community work and on-going efforts on behalf of St Michael’s, it’s easy to forget that Kit Glaisyer is also a working artist with an epic series of West Dorset landscapes underway and several commissions. ‘I always say I wish I had more time to paint, but truthfully I make no distinction between the various aspects of my work, be it painting, politicking or polemics – it’s all part of the whole and when you love your work it rarely seems like work. I’m innately optimistic, that’s why I’m an artist and art has to strive to be original, to find its own way and not look to rest on its laurels. That tenacity is what drives St Michael’s. It’s an inspirational place and we have been presented with the chance to shape our own future.’
• First published in Dorset Life – the Dorset Magazine.