The Story So Far…

Bridport & West Dorset Open Studios Open Studios

For many years artists have been drawn to Bridport and West Dorset, and the area has now gained a national reputation for its unique character and vibrant artistic community. As far back as 1865 Bridport boasted the first government funded art school in Dorset. Its most famous student was Francis (Fra) Newbery who went on to become one of the most distinguished directors of the Glasgow School of Art between 1885 and 1900, commissioning one of his students, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, to build the new Glasgow School of Art. Newbery also exhibited internationally with the Glasgow Boys, and promoted the work of his students so that the Glasgow style of Arts and Crafts became internationally known and emulated. Mackintosh and other friends and students visited Newbery in Dorset on sketching holidays and Newbery’s murals celebrating the ‘Spirit of Bridport’ can still be seen in the town hall.

Throughout the 20th century artists came to visit or live and work in the area. Both the landscape and the proximity of the sea were important factors, though no stylistic school of painting, such as happened in Newlyn or St Ives in Cornwall, occurred here. Instead the area seems to have attracted individuals working on their own ideas.

In the 1960s and 70s a new generation of artists took up residence in the locality, including the American-born abstract-expressionist painter John Hubbard and figurative painter Robin Rae – formerly a teacher at Liverpool School of Art, who studied under Francis Bacon and John Nash at the Royal College of Art. The experimental photographer John Miles also moved here; he studied painting at Wimbledon School of Art and then turned to photography under the influence of his teacher Gerald Howson.

The seeds of the current artistic revival were probably planted in the 1980s when both John Miles and Robin Rae taught at Symondsbury Art College, started by Peter Hitchin in the Old Manor in Symondsbury, just outside Bridport. The Art College was followed by the Oakhayes Art Residency, run by Ann Barnes in the Symondsbury Old Rectory during the 1990s, which attracted dozens of artists from across the country.

I was one of the final residents at Oakhayes, arriving in the autumn of 1998, and it was a formative experience for me to work alongside so many talented artists. Oakhayes closed in 1999 so I went looking for a new studio and soon found a space in an old factory on the St Michael’s Trading Estate, where I have been working ever since. A couple of years later I was joined by artists Andrew Leppard and Caroline Ireland and that was the start of St Michael’s Studios – now providing studios to over 20 artists.

The studios have also been at the forefront of a cultural regeneration of the St Michael’s Trading Estate – now known as the Art & Vintage Quarter and offering a wealth of creative industries in addition to artists’ studios, such as carpenters, masons, upholsterers, signwriters, designers, many antiques and vintage shops and the ever-popular Red Brick Café. For more information go to www.enterprisestmichaels.org.uk

1999 was also the year Caroline Ireland started the first Bridport Open Studios event. Since then it has continued to grow over the years and the baton has passed from one director to the next. We are extremely appreciative of the support of the artists and of the many local (and some further) businesses who understand the crucial part that our artistic culture plays in the wider community.

Kit Glaisyer – Director of Bridport & West Dorset Open Studios