Monday 28 May 2012

Newlyn School rules again

Newlyn School of Art is a name that evokes the halcyon days of figurative painting in the area, and the famous names we associate with that period are known and respected the world over. But don't be confused, the school we're talking about only opened last year. In fact, this is the first and only place of art training to have used this name, and for many reasons it might not be what you perceive it to be.

Perched on the higher reaches of Chywoone Hill, coincidentally just a short walk from the site of Stanhope Forbes' studio, Newlyn School of Art is housed in a former primary school, leased from the Stevenson family. The old building retains much of its character and period features including the enormous windows that allow plenty of that famous Newlyn light to pour in. The teaching space comprises a large drawing and painting room, and a print room, separated by the original partition doors, while eight other rooms are leased as permanent artists' studios. The courses are many and varied and embrace the principal disciplines of fine art: painting, drawing, printmaking and stone carving, with the latest project being a series of two-hour Life Drawing Evening Sessions on Wednesdays, taught by a roster of well known local working artists.

That there is such an art school in Newlyn would seem natural; part of our heritage and something we could easily take for granted. But its recent presence is only due to the bloody minded determination of one person, the School's founder and sole proprietor, Henry Garfit – a man with a vision.

A painter and printmaker himself, Henry relocated to Cornwall nine years ago to pursue a full-time career as an artist. It was an irrational and instinctive move, and to complicate his dream he was initially unable to find a studio space to rent. After a lengthy search, he came to the simple conclusion that there was a chronic lack of artists' studios in West Cornwall. Official statistics at the time stated that over 10,000 creative people were working in the county, but where? But rather than submit to the shortfall, the problem stoked his entrepreneurial spirit and, putting his brushes aside, Henry set himself the mission of righting this wrong. After much effort, including an abortive attempt to takeover some barns near Land's End, Henry was close to exhaustion when he happened to bump into a member of the Bolitho family (owners of Trewidden House) on a sleeper train to London. This chance meeting, and the subsequent negotiations, gave birth to Trewidden Studios; a collection of 15 self-contained studios on the outskirts of Newlyn, opened in 2008.
Motivated by the idea of upgrading the circumstances of local artists, and given new momentum by the success of Trewidden, Henry's ambitions grew into the formidable idea of founding a school. He knew that many local artists already relied on teaching work to supplement their income, but the commitment they must make can be detrimental to their artistic work. Henry's plan was to create a school where each artist's input was moderated to a manageable level; offering only short courses (a maximum of four days), allowing them to balance the teaching alongside their own artistic careers, but also ensuring that their input into the lessons is spontaneous and fresh. With an Arts Council grant secured, premises located and a ready-made name to use, he set about making his school a reality.

The novel concept was greeted enthusiastically by artists (none have declined the opportunity at the school thus far), and for many the teaching process has proved a healthy experience; an opportunity to verbalise their processes, share ideas and step out of the introspective world of their own art. Students too feel the benefit, with the chance to work with well-known artists, and by receiving passionate teaching from an experienced working practitioner.

The School's name is embedded in history, and there is a satisfying sense of continuity from past to present, but its links with those venerable ways have been loosened; the teaching style errs on the side of progressive. While key traditional skills are taught here, classes can be informal, free-form and often unconventional, depending on the tutor. While we were there, Sam Bassett's Experimental Drawing class was in full swing, with students painting with balls and sticks, and drawing with their eyes closed. The structure of courses is less rigid too, with students able to attend just one class, rather than having to sign up for a term's worth of lessons. It is this flexible and relaxed approach that gives the school its character and its niche, allowing it to sit comfortably alongside existing courses in the area. 

But who comes to learn? Student ages range from 16 to 86, and the level of experience present in any one class can span from professional artist or MA student, to the dabbler or the recipient of an Art School gift voucher who has yet to wield a brush. In short, anyone is welcome and all can benefit from the inspiration offered. And budding artists come from far and wide, enticed by Newlyn's art heritage, but Henry is heartened to see that the school is also being supported by locals; during the winter, 90% of the students were Cornish folk. Equally encouraging has been the support from local art bodies, which has been uninhibited; productive links have been forged with Penlee House Gallery and Museum, Newlyn Art Gallery and The Exchange, as well as Tate St Ives.

With all this positively buoying it along and a fifteen year lease in the bag, the potential of the School is limited only by Henry's energy. Even the building itself offers further scope; there are plans afoot to renovate further rooms to create a lecture space and a darkroom. 

Living where we do, art is an integral part of the community. Now here's the chance for us all to learn, improve, test our under-exercised creative muscles, or just have fun being an art student for a day or two.

Words © Dee and Gerard Ivall. Images © Nik Strangelove

Tuesday 15 May 2012

Our cups runneth over

Café culture is flourishing in Penzance and we're hardly able to keep up with all the great places there are to graze, sip and sup in.

The freshly opened Mr Billy's is a tea or coffee lover's Shangri-La. Venture inside and you enter a world where the phrase 'fancy a brew?' could potentially translate into infinite permutations of ingredients, preparations and preferences. But if you just want a simple cuppa, the connoisseurial complexity isn't forced upon you, rather, it's there if you're interested. And if you are interested, Mr Billy's currently carries 42 kinds of leaf teas and 17 kinds of coffees – all of which can be purchased in any quantity to take home, but can also be served at your table. That's right, every one of their locally roasted coffee beans can be ground to order and served in an individual cafetiere, and as far as we know, this kind of offering is rare in this country, let alone Penzance.



This should be exciting to any fan of hot beverages. But it doesn't stop there. Each pot of tea ordered arrives accompanied by, among other accoutrements, an egg timer. The purpose of this, the waitress will explain, is to measure the optimum three-minute brewing time. Once precisely brewed, the leaves are removed from the pot, in their little straining bucket, and set aside. Having enjoyed your first cup, the remains of the brew is discarded, fresh hot water is fetched and the leaves are re-immersed for a second, perfectly fresh cup. You're even encouraged to take the used leaves away with you, to protract your enjoyment at home, and this makes the price of a pot exceptionally good value.

We thought tea ceremony was the preserve of Japanese culture, but it's all going on right here in West Cornwall. And for real tea heads, another fact we learned is that Green teas must be made with water heated to just 80 degrees Celsius, so as not to burn the leaf and incite bitterness. Of course, Mr Billy's have an urn that heats to exactly that temperature. All such information is yours for the asking, making it an educational experience as much as a pleasurable one. Also for sale are an array of the best brewing, straining and serving devices on the market, along with a tasteful selection of related gifts and food products.

The full tea menu is far too comprehensive to relay here, but in addition to the ones you may have already come across or have in your own kitchen cupboard, some standout varieties (if only for the allure of their names) include Puerh Tea cakes, Russian Caravan and Georgian Old Lady. Fresh mint tea and Chai teas are also available.

Coffee beans are a seasonal product, so supply fluctuates, but quality and variety are always assured. We're fans of the Black Chough blend by Hands-on Coffee in Wadebridge, who have developed the Mr Billy's Blend especially for the cafe.

To others who know of the owners, this kind of dedication to leaf and bean should come as no surprise, as Nigel and Heather Parry are the founders of
Dishotay, the tiny shop at the top of Chapel Street that traded as a pure retailer of fine loose leaf tea and freshly roasted coffee. Having been regular Dishotay customers ourselves, we expected great things of the new enterprise, and the new café venture with Steve and Janet Mitchell is the natural culmination and of the couples' years of experience and knowledge. Nigel and Heather are seasoned caterers having previously run Billy's Café and the Beach in Sennen. And now, once again, they get to practice what they preach by expertly preparing and serving the speciality products they sell.


Also on the menu of the expanded enterprise are homemade cakes and some enticing lunch offerings. We tried a number of savoury dishes, with the 'food envy' award of the table going to the steak sandwich, with its strips of perfectly tender Trevarthan steak. We also shared a cracking cream tea with homemade scones, and an apricot and date crumble slice. On the quality of the food alone the place is to be highly recommended, but put this together with the liquid refreshments, and you're faced with a seriously appetising proposition.

The emphasis is on local and fresh, which is always a commendable principle. In fact, the Parrys have had strong links with local suppliers for many years: Origin and Hands-on for their coffee, and Tregothnan for their teas. And now they use nearby small producers like Trevarthan for their meat, and as we're talking, Joe 'the salad guy' delivers tomorrow's leaves.


Inside, the cafe is taking on an distinct Art Deco theme, but there's also an eclectic mix of other decorative items including Chinoiserie cabinets and reclaimed local signage. The interior space is deceptively large: from the window at the front the floorplate widens to a roomy bar and seating area at the rear. This means that the obvious street presence is limited, but we guarantee that word of mouth will work its magic to boost custom. Good places will be sought out wherever they are, and those offering the rare and unique will surely lure folk hungry for originality.

Order the teas, coffees and related accessories online at

Words © Dee and Gerard Ivall. Images © Nik Strangelove

Sunday 13 May 2012

Tea by the Sea

Like a blue and white dingy, bobbing alone in the bay, the Little Tea Caravan has once again pulled up on the promenade. The caravan, named Rosie Lee, is resplendent in her new coat of paint and is not only a refreshing sight, but a welcome merchant of refreshment in the mile-long desolate stretch between Newlyn Gallery cafe, at one end of the prom, and The Poolside cafe, at the other. The unspoilt sparseness of the prom is part of its charm, but this attractive distraction is quite welcome. Promenaders can partake from a simple menu of teas, coffee and cake at the scattering of tables and chairs, but if the sea breezes prove too bracing, you can take these away too. If the vintage vehicle, elegantly mismatching crockery and colourful appliqued banner doesn't endear you to the enterprise, you'll be charmed by the chalk board announcing 'Free squash for kids'. 

The idea for the pop-up cafe was born when the team took over the shipping container that sat incongurously on the prom last year. That initiative was a part of the 2011 Cornwall Design Season, but popularity spurred them onto finding a marginally more permanent home. It all seemed so perfect and obvious, but it was no easy journey to get there; an ocean of bureaucracy nearly sunk the scheme. But thanks to the perseverance of the crew, the caravan is now a regular feature on the Penzance seafront; moored and open for business (weather permitting) on weekends and school holidays from May to October. 

Follow Little Tea Caravan on Facebook for regular updates on opening times.

Images © Nik Strangelove