An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Sixteen

So the gallery was finally open but, in truth, the problems were just beginning. We were nearing the end of October and, apart from the odd sunny day at weekends, the docks were empty of visitors most of the time.

Our business plan was to create a gallery to sell paintings to the tourists in Bristol Docks. The City Council were confidently predicting that they were going to turn the harbour into the biggest maritime tourist attraction in Europe within five years and it really looked as though they might succeed. The National Maritime Museum were planning to expand into Bristol, work had already started on a building for them: the Maritime Heritage Centre, and the SS Great Britain project was going from strength to strength.

Based on those predictions I thought that, as a marine artist based on a barge right in the middle of it all, I should be able to make a reasonable living from the tourist trade. After all, there were plenty of thriving galleries in the seaside towns and harbours in Devon and Cornwall.

But we had missed the summer trade for this year. Our opening had created quite a stir and a feature on television’s local news programme, BBC Points West, helped enormously. For a couple of weekends, people came to see what it was all about and I picked up some very useful commissions, nonetheless our finances were very stretched and it would be a long winter. I consoled myself with the thought that I could finally get back to painting and at least there would be plenty of time to get work ready for our first summer.

One of our visitors, that first weekend, was Fred Larkham. Fred was a Gloucestershire man who, like Peter Herbert, had started his working life on the water in the nineteen thirties and, also like Peter, now owned several boats himself. I had met him when I was looking for a barge. Whilst negotiating the deal for the Glevum with Peter, one of my bargaining strengths had been knowing that Fred owned a couple of barges in Gloucester that Peter was interested in buying. In return for putting them in contact with each other, Peter had agreed to tow the Glevum to Bristol for us. That had been a huge help, as the only other option would have been to hire a tug  which, as the journey could not be done in fewer than two tides, would have cost over two thousand pounds!

Fred bought some paintings and I agreed to deliver them a week or two later. When Kate and I visited him and his wife to deliver the paintings, he showed us around their house, Severn Mill at Newnham-on-Severn. When he had bought the place it had no roof and flooded at high spring tides. The transformation was fabulous. It was now a beautiful house with a huge picture window at one end of the lounge that gave panoramic views out over the Severn. It even had its own private quay! Fred and his wife were most hospitable and Fred, with an audience as eager as Kate and me, waxed loquacious. He had started as a teenager on an old sailing barge, carrying stone for the construction of the flood defences around the estuary. Before we knew it, it was two o’clock in the morning and with the gallery to open at nine, we regretfully took our leave.

The following week I also had a call from Peter Herbert, whom I hadn’t seen since the Wilclair arrived in the docks. He told me he had to come up to Gloucester and asked if I would be on the Glevum the following day and, when I told him I would, he said he’d call in. When he arrived, he came into the wheelhouse, looked down the quayside, and said,

“What a bloody awful mess they’ve made of my Wilclair!”. His face was a picture of woe, then suddenly the old twinkle returned to his bright blue eyes and he smiled, “But the Glevum looks very smart – it’s a credit to you”

I made us a cup of coffee and took him downstairs to the gallery. When he saw the inside, his eyes nearly popped out!

” Well bugger me!”, he said “Oi thought thee wuz daft as a brush and oi never in a million yerz thought thee’d do it”.

Praise from such a man meant more to me than all the plaudits we’d received from the dignitaries at our opening.

 

To be continued.

 

Next post 4th October.

 

 

 

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An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Fifteen

The last two days flashed by in something of a blur: the list of last-minute preparations seemed endless.

A buffet was prepared for the opening and my old mate John Dix (he of Dixie’s Cider fame) provided us with a couple of stone jugs of his vintage cider for the occasion. I was pleased to have the cider as it was a very traditional drink amongst bargemen.

In the days of the bowhauliers, gangs of men, rather than horses, towed barges up our rivers, and the captain of the gang and the bargemaster would seal the towage agreement with a mug of cider. On occasions the bowhauliers would lay down their towropes and demand more money to get the barge to its destination. This was the origin of the saying “being taken for a mug”.

Preparing the buffet

Preparing the buffet

Kate’s mother, horrified at the thought of offering the Lord Mayor cider, insisted on providing a case of wine.

The complete exhibition was hung and looked wonderful. In addition to Myrtle’s appliques, we had marine oil paintings by Bill Camp, railway paintings by Ken Vincent, miniatures by Glenys Massey and landscapes by Ken Stark. We also had a selection of models of sailing ships and wood craft by John Symm, who had been with me when we brought the Glevum down from Gloucester.

As with all such events, the finishing touches were still being applied, almost to the minute the guests started to arrive. I just had time to scramble into my suit and tidy myself up (it seemed like the first time in years) and it was upon us.

The opening itself could not have gone better. John Hill unveiled the maker’s plate and the Lord Mayor gave a short speech – but undoubtedly the star of the show was Frank. In his eloquent way he said more about art and the maritime heritage of our wonderful city in five minutes than I could have done in an hour!

The Lord Mayor says a few words

The Lord Mayor says a few words

We were delighted with the turnout; the gallery was thronged and the atmosphere infectious.

Kate's Mum chatting with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress

Kate’s Mum chatting with the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress

Frank examines Glenys' miniature paintings

Frank examines Glenys’ miniature paintings

A goodly throng

A goodly throng

After a while it was time to ask everybody to tuck in to the buffet and refreshments.

Tucking in

Tucking in

It turned out that the Lord and Lady Mayoress were quite partial to Dixie’s Special Vintage, so much so that they stayed well over their allotted time. They were supposed to be with us for twenty minutes but stayed an hour and a half, much to the consternation of their driver!

Undoubtedly though, my favourite time was that evening, when we sat in the gallery with a few friends and it finally dawned on me what we had accomplished.

Kate in reflection

Kate in reflection

True, it had taken eleven months rather than the six I had planned, but even I could not have guessed just how wonderful the old barge would look when all the work was done.

The quiet of evening

The quiet of evening

Now all we had to do was survive as a business while the rest of the docks developed around us – no problem!

An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Fourteen

Somehow, even with dozens of different  things to organise, I found time to do the artwork for the logo and design the invitations to the opening of the gallery.

Invitation front

Invitation front

Invitation inner Invitation back

Back in the Olden Days. Part the Second.

I knew which font I wanted for the logo of the Glevum but unfortunately, Letraset only made it in black. I wanted white lettering on a black circle. I’d heard of a chap who’d reopened an old reprographics workshop in Old Market and phoned him to ask if he’d be able to do a monochrome reversal and produce a print-ready bromide. He said he could, so I did my artwork and took it over to him. He did the job on a Littlejohn process camera which occupied most of the room. It consisted of an enormous base with a glass top and, suspended above it,  a vast metal canopy, full of lights and lenses. It reminded me of an industrial blacksmith’s forge. The whole process took most of the morning. Then, when I had finally got my black circle with white lettering, I had to cut and paste my artwork of the Glevum onto it. Cut and paste: using a real scalpel and real gum! Eventually the artwork was ready to go to the printer.

Today, using this computer, the whole process would take me about ten seconds.

Back to the story

With ten days to go, catastrophe struck. One morning, after a night of gales and rain, I arrived at the boat to find that the wind had torn the tarpaulin off the hatches and it was hanging over the side and dangling  in the dock. The rain had been pouring through the hatchboards all night. Most of the chipboard that we had used for our flooring was ruined.

I had been planning to replace the battens and wedges that held the tarpaulin in place, but it hadn’t reached the top of the priority list yet. Now I was paying the price. Many of the old wedges were a bit soft and just hadn’t been strong enough to hold against the strength of the wind.

The only consolation was that we had not yet had the carpet fitted: that was due in two days’ time. There was simply no time to get in a state about it, so we pitched in in to strip out the damaged boards and replace them. From now on, Kate and I worked 20 hours a day and were sleeping on board. Doug and Myrtle carried on with the decorating whilst Kate and I replaced the flooring.

Doug and Myrte  carrying on into the wee hours

Doug and Myrte carrying on into the wee hours

When the carpet arrived we were ready for it – but only just.

With almost all the decoration finished and with the carpet laid, the transformation was magical. I couldn’t resist hanging a couple of paintings, just to see what they’d look like!

Just to see

Just to see

Two days before the opening, we had an interview on the Al Read Show on Radio Bristol. It was scheduled for 9.45pm but, due to last minute panics, we did not leave the docks until 9.25. We burst into the studio with about a minute to spare. The media types seemed somewhat taken aback by our appearance, we were still in our overalls and covered in wood shavings. But Al Read was great, he made us feel very comfortable and seemed almost as enthusiastic as we were, asking all the right questions.

As soon as the interview was over we hurried back, to work on the Glevum until the early hours.

Coffee break 1am

Coffee break 1am

The day before were due to open, we hung Myrtles appliques. They looked fabulous.

Myrtles Appliques

Myrtles Appliques

 

The largest of them had been made in the small front room of their terraced house in Cliftonwood. It had been a landscape that, over the years, had grown and grown. In the end it was so big that it could not be fully opened in the house – she would add bits first to one side, and then the other. In consequence, she had never seen the whole picture at once; this restriction had also made attempts to measure it accurately, somewhat difficult.

We didn’t really know if it would fit.

It was hung from a pole, which was fixed tight beneath the hatches as high as we could get it. We were in luck:  it might have been made to measure! It just fitted in the gap between the hatch coamings and nearly reached the floor.

The Big One

The Big One

Standing in front of it, you felt as though you could walk in. When Myrtle saw it properly for the first time, it brought tears to her eyes. The only time I ever saw such a thing.

 

To be continued.

Next post 20th September

An Art Gallery on a Boat? You Must be Mad! Part Thirteen

The gallery space was beginning to look really good. The shape of the hull, and the combination of the lighting from the skylights in the wooden hatches and the spotlights we’d installed under the deckheads, gave a very warm and welcoming look. We had cut skylights into every second hatchboard and then had a waterproof tarpaulin made, with clear panels to match the skylights. We covered the walls in hessian. This material had many advantages, it gave a nice neutral background for the pictures, it would cover pinholes from the picture hooks, it was consistent with the history of a grain barge but, above all, it was both inexpensive and it looked great.

As the myriad of finishing touches were being put into place, we had the organisation of the opening to arrange. We realised that this would be a one-off opportunity to really get the media to take notice, so we had to give it our best shot. We needed someone who was well known and, ideally, connected with both art and ships. One name immediately came to mind – Frank Shipsides. Although I knew and very much admired his work, I had never met him. Taking a chance, I found his number in the telephone directory and called him. At worst, he could only say no. On the telephone he was charming. When I explained what we were doing with the Glevum, his response was,

         “Pop up and see me, dear boy, we can talk it over”

When I visited him, he was very interested in our project and said he would come and look at the barge a day or so later. He was as good as his word and, as soon as he was on board, his enthusiasm for what we had done was infectious. He explained that he would not be able to put any pictures into our first exhibition but that he would be more than willing to perform the opening ceremony for us. It is typical of the man that when I started to discuss a fee he would hear none of it.

We also heard back from the city council that the Lord Mayor, Councillor Claude Draper, and the Lady Mayoress would attend. We had been in touch with the Hill family, whose shipyard had built the Glevum in 1955, John and Michael Hill both said they would be happy to attend. Sadly, the original builder’s nameplate had disappeared from the front of the wheelhouse before the vessel came into our possession, but we had a replica made and we arranged for John Hill to unveil this.

During this period, the activity around the barge seemed to draw people like a magnet and we had met several local artists who had agreed to bring down paintings for our opening exhibition. As Myrtle only had enough appliques to fill about half the wall space this had worked out well.

To be continued.

Next post 13th September