Portraits at The Witham Gallery in Barnard Castle

From John Cogan ARPS

Anticipation!  We have only a few weeks to wait now!  Ferrying the pictures complete with frames down to Barnard Castle will take place on Wednesday morning, 4th January for the staff there to hang them on the walls of the Witham Gallery.  At 5pm, the formal opening of the exhibition takes place.  What exhibition you might ask?  The answer is that the DPS’s Portraits from the North East group will see the first of their travelling exhibition of Craftspeople open to the public.

We have come a long way since those hesitant days when Tony Griffiths and I photographed Sir Thomas Allen, Chancellor of Durham University.  That project culminated in our highly successful 100 Portraits Exhibition which toured the region in 2015.  Having that experience to help us the Craftspeople of the North East project has (and is still) progressing well.

Throughout 2016, the members of the Portraits Collective have visited various parts of the region to photograph crafts people as they work at their various projects. Tony and John Clarke spent time with the artistic blacksmith Stephen Lunn and his apprentice, his daughter Ashlee.  Ian Peele and Dave Murrell eventually escaped the generous hospitality of the crafts people hand-making superior fishing equipment at Hardy’s of Alnwick whilst David Wardle spent time with Helen Moran a maker (or weaver) of Corn Dollies.  Yes, I know, a Corn Dolly weaver who does NOT live in East Anglia!  Joe Grabham and Peter Walton visited the internationally renowned fettlers of pipe organs; Harrison & Harrison of Durham.  Their visit coincided with Harrison & Harrison finishing the renovation of the organ of King’s College, Cambridge.

Discovering crafts people to photograph was the easy part, finding venues for the exhibition is a different matter.  After many telephone calls and a wee bit of persuasion we have our first venue booked: The Witham Gallery in Barnard Castle.

The Witham is an imposing building facing the market place in the Main Street.  After some serious renovation work it is now a vibrant community arts space with a very good cafe, cinema, theatre and a decent-sized gallery specially designed to be flexible.  Working with the community Arts organizer we have negotiated a month’s space.  The one limitation is that we are able to display a limited number of crafts people.  Who to display and who to leave till a future venue has been difficult.  Still, by the time you read this Peter Walton and Dave Murrell will have finished mounting our prints, so the decision has been made.

One of the unique features of The Witham is that they are able to display samples of the crafts peoples’ work.  In fact they are encouraging this.  Our practice has been to have, ideally, two photographers per subject; their brief to record the craft processes, the equipment, the finished items and include a portrait of the crafts person.  These have since been collated, archived and arranged in Microsoft Office Publisher, on two A3 sheets; the aim being to mount them side by side to form an A2plus panel.  The images used on these two A3 sheets were then culled and printed onto a single A3 sheet in case space was limited.

The choice of crafts is often taken on advice.  Various people were approached for recommendations from the 3D curator at The Biscuit Factory to Beamish Museum to shops selling items for “The Country Gentleman”.  Tony Griffiths and John Clarke were able to access the atelier of Jane Charles, a glass blower.  Jane is the last independent glass blower in the north.  Her work is delicate, subtle and yet manages to have a vibrancy that ensures each item is unique and memorable.  Listening to both of them after the session it is obvious that the greatest impact came from their interaction with Ms Charles.  From such contacts come other projects: pebbles dropped into a pond spreading outwards.

The same was true when Joanne Coates, Joe Grabham and I visited the maker of hand-made books and paper sculptor Sarah Morpeth.  Up in the wilds of Northumberland, Sarah lives a quiet life with her dogs and her febrile creative mind.  This is a far cry from her previous life as a corporate tax lawyer. Joe and Joanne’s quiet approach worked wonderfully.  From being shy and reclusive we were treated to a wonderful couple of hours in her company.

The results of all this hard work by the team will be display around the North East over 2017, and probably, into 2018.  The first opportunity to see some of the work will be at The Witham throughout January.  If you get a chance to visit, we would all be most grateful; and entry is free!

John Cogan December 2016





Organ pipes at Harrison & Harrison by Joe Grabham




Andrew Ashcroft the Goldsmith examining an item by Peter Walton




Andrew Ashcroft the Goldsmith with a finished ring. by Peter Walton




Brian Russell Blacksmith working at his anvil by Tony Griffiths




Jane Charles the glassblower by John Clarke


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