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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