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Why a mine on the fringes of the Lake District is drawing interest from artists

PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 September 2016

Margie Foots, Jenni Payne and Jill Davis of the Florence Paintmakers outside the former Florence Mine. The Paintmakers are based on the site

Margie Foots, Jenni Payne and Jill Davis of the Florence Paintmakers outside the former Florence Mine. The Paintmakers are based on the site

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The old pit called the Florence Mine is now a mecca for artists and it has its own high quality pigments. Mike Glover reports

Egremont Red paint being made by Florence Paintmakers. With a piece of the haematite used.Egremont Red paint being made by Florence Paintmakers. With a piece of the haematite used.

The Italian city of Florence is synonymous with art. But another Florence is starting to make waves in the art world and this one is much closer to home. Florence Mine, on the fringes of the Lake District is capitalising on an accident of industrial history to create world-wide interest as a source of that essential art ingredient – pigment.

In the late 19th century the mine was named after the wife of the chairman of the company which sunk Western Europe’s deepest iron ore mine at Egremont.

The ore became famous for its quality and turned this corner of Britain into a Klondike when iron was needed to fuel the industrial revolution. But the march of time and cheaper imports meant it closed in 2008.

Within three years the Egremont area regeneration project decided art could fire the area’s revival and it now has an exciting future as a hub for creativity with an arts centre in the old shower block of the disused pit. It houses a gallery, small theatre and recording studio along with workshop spaces and artists’ studios.

Egremont Red paint being made by Florence PaintmakersEgremont Red paint being made by Florence Paintmakers

But what really put it on the art map was the discovery they were surrounded by acres of haematite, the raw material from which iron is extracted.

This mineral has always been a source of colour. Hill farmers use it to mark their sheep, with their smit mark denoting ownership. It also went into grease, smeared onto the sheep to make them look smart for showing.

Four artists, Jill Davis, Margie Foots, Jenni Payne and Liz Redmayne, founded Florence Paintmakers, creating a purpose-designed studio and experimenting with formulae to create a niche range of high-pigment art materials.

They use traditional paint-making methods and locally-sourced natural materials at a time when artisan products are increasingly valued.

Egremont Red paint being made by Florence PaintmakersEgremont Red paint being made by Florence Paintmakers

The four send the haematite away to be ground down before hand-milling it themselves with a glass muller and mixing it with various ingredients including local beeswax and mead.

The current range includes Egremont Red watercolour and oil paint, pastels, watercolour pencils and artists’ dry pigment. They are available in art shops and galleries throughout the region and can also be bought online, with interest shown as far away as America and Australia.

But no longer does the co-operative have to say: ‘You can have any colour as long as it is red.’ They have added St Bees Yellow to their portfolio, ground from the distinctive stone found in the coastal village where Jenni Payne lives.

Next is possibly a Burlington Slate grey, to be known as Kirkby Grey. Egremont Red drawing ink is also in development this year.

Jenni Payne said: ‘Artists from London and other cities are coming to Egremont to use the paint. But they also like the story of the mine and its link to the industrial heritage. The story of Egremont Red fires the imagination.’

Among those smitten with Florence Mines are Lancaster-based landscape artists, Fay Collins and Debbie Yare. This summer they held a joint exhibition entitled ‘Nature Returning’ at the Ashton Memorial in Williamson Park.

Several visitors told them about the Florence Mine so they went to see it for themselves. They result is they will be holding an update of their exhibition at Egremont in April next year.

‘The colours are amazing. It is such a gem of a place,’ said mother-of-two Fay, from Lancaster. Debbie added: ‘It is fascinating how they are using the products of the industrial heritage to make art.’

The couple have taken pigments, paints and pastels from the site to use in the new works they intend to use in the show.

The artists behind Florence Paintmakers thought long and hard about the name of their prime colour. They opted for Egremont Red as they feared Florence Red may confuse people about its origins, as there is already a Venetian Blue.

But who knows? Florence Mine may yet challenge the home of the Uffizi Gallery and the Medici family. w

Florence Arts Centre is open year-round Wednesday-Sunday 10-4pm www.florencemine.com (further info);

Florence Mine will host an exhibition, GROUND 3, from September 10 -October 28, featuring a group show of nine artists who have all used natural materials, paint and pigments in their artwork. For more information, see www.florencepaintmakers.co.uk

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