Thursday 4 June 2015

Tough times for heirs to Ruskin and Wordsworth

The annual Summer showcase for the highest quality arts and crafts
Lakeland Arts and Crafts join together in the face of austerity.

The English Lake District is identified with William Wordsworth and John Ruskin. The former revolutionised poetry and began the ‘Romantic Movement’ and Ruskin, whose extraordinary mind crossed art, social reform and philosophy inspired Tolstoy, Proust and Gandhi, along with William Morris, whose Arts and Crafts movement is the thinker and critics legacy.
But what of the arts and crafts of Cumbria today?
They’re struggling, but have found the best way forward is by working together. The Lakes Collective is a growing group of artists and craft producers, have combined to support each other and the excellence of their cultural contributions. founded five years ago, they now have over 50 members.
At their Annual Summer Showcase at Rydal Hall, where Wordsworth and friends found inspiration in the grounds, two of the group, Clare Humphry and Elizabeth Shorrock showed EU reporter around and explained their difficulties in keeping the creative spirit alive in these ancient hills.
Humphry explains their approach, “To put on exhibitions, we’re self-funded,so we all contribute to hiring a venue, and the other costs involved in putting on a show such as equipment and advertising, but whatever you sell, belongs to each artist.” It’s an approach that cuts down the costs, and enables to get the full amount of their sales.
“In galleries, you have commissions of 40, 50%, sometimes more,” says Shorrock, a former teacher now devoting her time to her creations.
“There are a lot of artists in Cumbria but a lot of the groups are for one discipline only. There are very few places where you can put together the arts and crafts with fine art, like we can,” says Shorrock, adding, “and of course, those who fit in between.”
People have to be an artist or a designer-maker, who design and create a finished work by themselves.” The criteria for membership is also quality, which can be hard to define, but the high standards are obvious to visitors.
Ruskin would approve, as he said, “When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.”
While the area is a world-class tourist destination, the artists are faced with innate prejudices against rural communities, “If we put on an exhibition in a little village hall, visitors think there can’t be anything too good in such a place,” says Humhpry, and sometimes they’re right as there are some who produce tat for tourists, not fine art.
There’s no snobbery in this, like most people in the area they are hard workers and soft talkers, merely wanting to create skilled works and the equally hard part, earn a living and this is where the geography that inspires can also be an obstacle.
Is it hard to make a living? The two look at each other and cheerily laugh. It’s almost impossible to make a living. Far away from the urban art scene, where the galleries and money is, it’s tough. Harder
when the Lake District economy is divided between wealthy owners who move into the area after having made their money elsewhere, when the locals are mostly on part time, seasonal, zero-hours contracts.
“There are artists working as cleaners in hotels and other low paid tourism jobs, doing all sorts of jobs just to get by,” says Humphry, “It gets worse when you get a bit older and you have partners, children and responsibilities grow.”
She adds: “It’s also hard to work full time and still produce art, you need time to think and develop ideas you have, you need that mental space to be creative.”
There is also the effect of the North-South divide, where it costs too much to bring an exhibition into London and there is the expectation that art from the North is, well cheaper. There are numerous anecdotes of reactions from some in the metropolitan art scene that demonstrates how those in northern, rural areas are looked down on.
But they are creative, more so when they work with others.
In one recent project was a collaboration with the Wordsworth Trust, based in the poet’s home, Dove Cottage.
The Rector of St Oswald’s church in Grasmere, where Wordsworth is buried, took a select group of poets around, some of them with international reputations, telling them all about the place, then they went off and wrote poems on the experience, then the artists were given the poems, anonymously and created an artwork inspired by them,” Shorrock explains. The poems will be published in the near future.
There are also some outstanding locations for artists to use, should they battle past the varied authorities, but one exciting event next May will be their installation of Alice in Wonderland by their collective in the Edwardian formal gardens of Rydal Hall, a perfect setting..
“I’ve got a steampunk Jabberwocky already!” exclaims Humphrys.
What they also have, is the spirit Ruskin and Wordsworth, who valued culture as the highest expression of society, but with increasingly deeper cuts to arts funding, the north of England is losing out to the city sophisticates and art teaching in steep decline, neither of the artists can think of an answer to ‘What is the future of arts and crafts in the Lake District?
They struggle on, with as much joy as they can muster. Let’s hope they can beat the odds, for to lose the creativity and cultural treasures the Lake District has given would be a disaster, not just to England, but Europe and the wider world.

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