A look at the diverse art scene in Macclesfield
PUBLISHED: 00:00 08 January 2018
What is it that makes Macclesfield a magnet for the art crowd? Janet Reeder heads over there to find out
One of the most high profile artists in the world is a former pupil of the King’s School Macclesfield, called Helen Marten.
The recipient of the prestigious Turner and Hepworth prizes creates complex sculptures from a fantastic array of materials and while she went on to study at Ruskin College, Oxford, and Central St Martins in London it was her parents’ garage in Macclesfeld that Helen retreated to in order to create the works which would result in her first proper show.
What is it about Macclesfield that attracts artists? The annual Barnaby Festival, which is going from strength to strength each year certainly throws a spotlight on the town’s cultural heritage but the creativity seems to run deeper.
I went to meet one artist, Ralph McGall, who, like Helen Marten, works in an outbuilding. It’s a shed on an allotment down a winding lane very much off the beaten path.
Thankfully, all thoughts of serial killer chiller thrillers are dispelled on finding out that Ralph’s shed is idyllic.It’s a cosy rustic hideaway.
Its homespun beauty is partly the result of a joinery course that Ralph took before realising that woodwork just wasn’t creative enough for him. He wanted to be an artist in the true sense.
‘I’ve been painting in Macc now for about 10 years trying to make a career of it,’ he explains.
‘ I was born in Macclesfield and grew up in Bollington but was in college in Brighton and in Barcelona for a short while.
‘When I was at college(doing a foundation course) they were making me over-think the work and it didn’t suit me so I came out of that and decided to start a joinery apprenticeship. But I soon realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do. That’s when I got a studio in Macclesfield on Sunderland Street.
‘A lot of people might know me from there because I used to do the open studios, which has definitely helped me as most people who have bought my work have found me through the open studios there. It is also a great opportunity to see international and well-known artists in the town.’
Ralph is now ‘more or less’ a full-time artist with recent exhibitions in Kunst Gallery in Derbyshire and he will be collaborating with another artist on a project for this year’s Barnaby Festival.
He describes his artistic style as ‘primitive’.
‘ I haven’t many words to describe it. A lot of time my paintings are not realistic in any sense. I am trying to go more abstract in my work. It’s a balance between abstract and figurative,’ he says.
And for the future? ‘I just want to make a bit more of a living and I’d like to get my work into some decent galleries.’
One painter who has overcome the problem of exhibiting his work is David Richardson - as he has his own gallery in the centre of town.
For the past seven years David has been the co-owner with his partner Chris Jackson of the Jack Sevens Gallery at Chestergate. It regularly holds exhibitions featuring national and international artists.
David is also an arts educator and was last year’s Macclesfield Primary Schools Artist in Residence.
‘Before I set this up I was a teacher so I have a lot of experience in education,’ he says.
‘Every year I’ve worked in partnership with primary schools, for Arts Creativity week which is held each February.’
He and his partner originally set up a gallery in Hayfield where they live, as a ‘bit of a hobby’ but feeling disillusioned with the education system David decided to launch on a bigger scale in Macclesfield. They also added a cafe and have discovered it to be an asset as it helps break down the barriers some people might have stepping into an art gallery.
‘Selling art is tricky,’ admits David.
‘I think the thing that has kept us buoyant is the cafe, which makes things a bit more accessible.
‘For community engagement in the arts Macclesfield is quite active but I think selling art, there has been a flurry of people trying to do it and not succeeded.
‘It helps too that all our artists are full-time whose work is reasonably collectible such as Henry Walsh and John Hamilton and we have a collection by a now deceased member of the St Ives School, Clive Williams. We also have a very reputable landscape painter John Connelly and Adam Bridgland who is a friend of Damien Hirst, so we have very eclectic and niche groups of artists. It’s really just artists that we like.’
Another focal point for art in the town is the Longden Gallery on Shaw Street, which has become a shared print and ceramic studio for a group of professional artists including Anne Aspinall.
The gallery was founded in 1979 by Ruth Davenport in response to the need for a creative space for artists in transition from college to making an independent living.
Anne came to Macclesfield in 1984 from Hazel Grove. ‘ I had some really wonderful friends but there wasn’t an artist among them’ she laughs.
‘There always has been an art scene in Macclesfield. I had never met so many artists in one place when I first moved here and we still have quite a few.’
She came to Macclesfield to look after her seriously ill father and ended up raising her family in the town.
‘We were planning to go away for a year in a motorhome. It was all set. Instead we moved in with my dad,’ she explains.
‘He did very well so we had to find somewhere we could do up quickly. We came to a New Year’s Eve party in Macclesfield and on New Year’s Day looked in all the estate agents. Back then it was cheaper here!
‘At our housewarming party I’d already met founder member of the gallery, Jane Osmond, and she’d seen some of my work on the wall. She said: “Your work would lend itself to printmakin. Come to one of my etching classes”, so I came here and I never left. I have been working here ever since.’
‘The gallery was set up at the Longden Smithy hence the name but they moved here to this site in the 1980s. Ruth was very much into shared space but we shared the running of the gallery and the profit was ploughed back in to keep the rents low. I use it now to paint in.’
It is really no accident that the town has a thriving art scene according to Macclesfield Art Group’s chairman Dave Williams.
‘Macclesfield has strong connections to art and design, due to the town’s former silk industry and the need to develop expertise in producing quality designs for the woven Jacquard patterned fabrics,’ he reveals.
‘Macclesfield School of Art was built in the late 19th century, when students were trained as silk designers. The skill of its designers was a vital resource.
‘The School of Art was installed on Old Park Lane in 1880 and by 1887 there were 197 students and the institution became one of the foremost of its kind in England. In addition to general art courses special attention was paid to training in design for the staple industry of the town. A steady stream of talented artists and designers graduated through its classes and the high reputation Macclesfield attained as a silk centre owed much to its training.’
He says that during the past seven years there has been an upsurge in all forms of art in the town, encouraged by the monthly Treacle Market which is held on the last Sunday of the month, and the biennial Barnaby Festival which will be held in the town this year on June 15th-24th.
‘Many people with a little spare time have taken up art as a pastime and attend a variety of painting classes as well as the ever improving U3A (the University of the 3rd Age).
‘The art scene in Macclesfield is now so diverse that a new organisation, Macclesfield Culture Heritage and Arts Forum – MCHAF – has recently been formed. The aim is to provide a co-ordinated approach to heritage and culture as a means of assisting the regeneration of Macclesfield.’
‘Undoubtedly Macclesfield benefits from having a local group,’ he continues. ‘Our expanding membership is a demonstration of how our group helps foster the arts in the town and surrounding area.
‘In 2016 we rebranded the art group; whilst we are still officially Macclesfield Art Group we are known as “Macc Art” with our publicity material displaying the new logo.’