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Why are the arts thriving in Lancaster?

PUBLISHED: 15:00 08 November 2016 | UPDATED: 15:26 08 November 2016

Artist Sandy Gardner models her pheasant design wrap (Picture: Guy Morris)

Artist Sandy Gardner models her pheasant design wrap (Picture: Guy Morris)


This historic city has one of the most vibrant arts scenes in the north. Martin Pilkington called in

The historic centre of Lancaster The historic centre of Lancaster

With its wealth of ancient buildings, its university and a rather quirky character, Lancaster is the sort of city where you’d be entitled to expect a thriving arts scene, and you wouldn’t be disappointed.

The doyenne of Lancaster’s arts venues has to be The Grand on St Leonard’s Gate. ‘The theatre was built in 1782, but in 1908 there was a disastrous fire that destroyed three of the walls. It was then restored by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham,’ explains manager Ellie Singleton.

In design terms it’s a proper old-fashioned theatre from the days before arts subsidies had been heard of, and still stands on its own two feet today. ‘We’re an unfunded theatre, so we have to make money on our ticket sales,’ she says. ‘That’s not easy, so we’re proud of what we achieve here.’

Since 1951 the Grand has been owned by Footlights, a drama group that puts on four shows a year, with a varied programme putting bums on seats (and money in the coffers) in between. ‘We’re a warm-up venue for comedy tours,’ Ellie adds. ‘Attracting names like Lee Evans and Michael McIntyre - not many theatres this size get names like that, and we can sell every seat in the house for those stars within 20 minutes – the students pack in.’ Another money spinner, as ever, is panto, or more accurately pantomimes, as in December they have both the traditional show Cinderella, and five performances of what Ellie describes as ‘tastefully crude’ adult pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk.

The students who pack out stand-up nights at The Grand can enjoy more highfalutin’ fare at Lancaster University’s own venues, but then so does the rest of the city. ‘The split town and gown for our events varies widely,’ explains Jamie Wooldridge, marketing and communications manager of Lancaster Arts. ‘For classical concerts, it can be 80 per cent town, if you look at the theatre it may be 90 per cent students, and we have family events that are predominantly attended by people from outside the university.

Sarah Jane Bellwood and Andrew Wright of Bellwood and Wright Fine Art Sarah Jane Bellwood and Andrew Wright of Bellwood and Wright Fine Art

‘In terms of venues we have three - The Peter Scott Gallery, The Nuffield Theatre, and The Black Box Studio Theatre, plus we use the Great Hall for the Lancaster Concert Series, approaching its 50th anniversary.’ Some major names are appearing there in the coming months – Sir Willard White, Noriko Ogawa and the Endellion String Quartet among them, but Lancaster Arts has a particular remit to support new works and emerging artists. ‘We also support student productions and learning, showcasing their work in a professional environment, and using the gallery for degree and PhD shows.’

In the centre of Lancaster, Bellwood & Wright Fine Art on Penny Street similarly offers the city’s residents both established and up-and-coming artists. ‘We opened in 2004, as we felt there was a gap in the market in Lancaster, nowhere selling really good quality 21st century art,’ says the gallery’s Sarah Bellwood.

On November 10th they open their Big Names show, featuring the likes of Donald Hamilton Fraser, John Hoyland, Sandra Blow, Bruce McClean and Sir Terry Frost. But home-grown talent is important for them, too. ‘The local art scene is thriving,’ Sarah says. ‘We recently did a show called ‘Short Listed’ to showcase artists with national reputations who live in Lancaster, so it included people like Gerry Davies and Sarah Casey who both work at Lancaster University, Louis Appleby and Peter Layzell, and a really fabulous young ceramicist called Lanty Ball who went to Lancaster Royal Grammar School.

‘Lancashire and the north have a wonderful stock of very good artists. And Lancaster in particular is a very creative place.’

Amy-Jo on stage at the historic Grand Theatre, Lancaster Amy-Jo on stage at the historic Grand Theatre, Lancaster

Amy-Jo looks the real deal

Lancaster singer-songwriter Amy-Jo Clough, who recently signed a recording deal with London label Incessant Records, and has previously supported The Fratellis, Heaven 17, Professor Green, Little Mix and a host of others to hone her stagecraft. She has also appeared in panto, plays and musicals at the Grand. ‘I started performing at the theatre when I was 10 in a sort of X-Factor show, with someone out of Blue, another from Eternal.I sang an Alicia Keys song, a bit deep for a 10-year-old,’ she says.

‘Now I’m working as a singer-songwriter. I’ve been taking a gap year after school, and said I’ll try to get signed, otherwise I’d take up a place at university.’ Two months ago she was offered a recording contract, and currently spends much of her time in London writing with other musicians, recording and preparing to tour.

‘We’re doing an EP which will be out early next year, with an album to follow.’ If you want to catch her before stardom kicks in, however, she’s giving panto what may be a final blast this year, playing Alice in Dick Whittington at King George’s Hall, Blackburn.

The owl design by Sandy Gardner The owl design by Sandy Gardner

Art you can wear

Sandy Gardner provides clear proof of how Lancaster’s creative atmosphere can fire an artist’s imagination. She worked as a book illustrator and cover designer for 10 years, then taught art in Oldham and Wigan, but was continually drawn back to her friends and the artistic network in Lancaster.

‘I’d hoped to teach part time and work as an artist the rest, but teaching takes all your energy, so a year ago I became a full-time artist again. It is a very creative environment here with lots of excellent musicians and artists, a really supportive scene.’

That supportive aspect was central to a new strand of her work: ‘Last December when Storm Desmond hit Lancaster there was a fantastic community reaction – hotels put stranded people up for free, The Robert Gillow fed them. I wanted to do something that reflects that community spirit. The returning birds last spring seemed to symbolise the positive energy here, and I created some designs around that idea.

‘The second thing I wanted to do was work with local businesses. I’d seen that Standfast and Barracks, who print fabrics for Liberty, had taken delivery of their new fabric printer. They’re down on Caton Road where the main flooding was, but were getting back to work after the flood. They were keen straight away, they support local artists.’

The bird designs, including symbolically the Phoenix, now adorn delicate wraps as wearable art, already snapped up from her website by buyers as far afield as France, Germany, and the USA, though true to her local ethos she’s still selling them in Lancaster’s Charter Market.

For more information, go to www.sandygardner.co.uk

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