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Leap of faith

Words by Mercedes Smith

Writer Mercedes Smith dives into the Contemporary Art world of 21st century Devon.

In September 2022, after two decades living and working in west Cornwall, I was taken by the instinct for new adventures and relocated my life, my family and my business to the county of Devon. A lot of people tried to dissuade me, for good reason: the friends I’d be leaving, the beaches I’d miss, the risk to my career in fine art. Why leave a life I’d built and buy a house in a county where I didn’t know a soul? It was hard to explain to people, but I’d reached a point in my life where I felt, in so many ways, that I’d done all I could do in Cornwall. Something told me that, far from losing the Cornish friends, colleagues and clients I loved, such a decisive move might enrich my life even more. 

I’m a Derbyshire girl, born and bred, so the first gift Devon gave me was a real autumn of the type I hadn’t seen for twenty years. The trees turned red and gold, the grass sparkled with frost, and spectacular silver mists hung in the valleys. Chipping ice off the windscreen of my car each morning made me feel like a teenager again, and when snow fell in the winter the kids and I rushed outside to catch snowflakes on our tongues. When spring came in Devon it was so luxuriant and green it was overwhelming, and in the summer it got hot, really hot, in a way that’s not possible on the Cornish peninsula with the sea and ocean breezes all around. I gardened, I read books, and I tanned. Back at last in a year with four seasons and the forested landscape of my youth, parts of me came back that I didn’t even realise I’d put away.

The next, and perhaps most significant gift Devon gave me, was a whole new art scene to explore and a chance to expand my understanding of art in the south west. In west Cornwall the art scene is dazzling, from the Newlyn and St Ives Schools to its history of British Modernism, to the exceptional work being made there right now. But of art in Devon I knew nothing and no one at all, except for Royal Academy sculptor Peter Randall-Page, whose brilliance shouts loud across continents. There were clues, though, when I thought about it, to a Devon art scene with something to say: at the Venice Biennale a few years ago I came across the sculpture Syzygy by Mat Chivers, which I felt was the standout artwork of the event. Squinting at the label I saw, to my surprise, that the work originated in Devon, UK, and made a mental note that this was a serious talent I should know more about; on a week away with a girlfriend I found myself at Devon’s Broomhill Sculpture Gardens, indulging my love of kinetic art thanks to National Sculpture Prize Finalist Lucy Gregory’s ‘Rose Tinted’, which took my breath away; and while house hunting on Dartmoor I came across Greenhill Arts, tucked away by the church in Moretonhampstead, and was so impressed with its offering that I was late for my house viewing. As I packed up my life in Cornwall I thought about these things and felt a surge of real optimism about my professional future. What was there to discover in Devon that my focus on the Cornish art scene had made me miss? Moving would give me the chance to meet new artists, explore new cultural histories, and learn.

Once settled in our new home I began visiting art studios, attending gallery openings, and writing about all of it. At my very first private view in Devon I searched the gallery for something inspirational, and out of hundreds of works I found it – an impossibly fragile sculpture built from mechanical pencil leads. Insanely good. More thrilling still was a framed NHS branded bedsheet, embroidered with romantic illustrations for giving the kiss of life. It was strange and extraordinary stuff. Lost in the forest lanes that same week I came across a sign for the intriguingly titled School of Art and Wellbeing, where owner Mary Ann Mackenzie welcomed me on to her beautiful estate and inspired me with her vision of combing art education with the restorative peace of Devon’s wild spaces. 

On Dartmoor, as those red and gold leaves were falling, Peter Randall-Page gave me a privileged look inside his wonderous Art Barn, a new archive for his work that opens onto the landscape and closes like a magical puzzle box. In north Devon I interviewed filmmaker Jess Pearson, founder of The Maker Series of short films, who is a champion for north Devon’s artists and an impressive cultural innovator. In the South Hams I visited the studio of still life painter Sam Brooks and found more colour and beauty on canvas than I have actual words for, and high on Hay Tor I drank tea in the studio of rising young painter Emily Powell, whose dazzling work is so joyful that it could arguably end all wars and restore humanity. I’m getting excited, you can tell, but the truth is that all this brilliance was unknown to me, and discovering it is quite a journey. But why was it unknown to me, when I had spent twenty years living in the south west with my eye out for all and anything ‘art’? 

What Devon lacks, I am learning, are dedicated venues for the exhibition of art, and all the public profile that brings. In Cornwall you are literally tripping over art galleries wherever you go, and there is serious private and public investment that supports the fine arts and attracts audiences, with venues like Tate St Ives keeping the county’s international profile high. But in Devon, the quality and quantity of work made here is not matched by spaces to exhibit it. Some venues here are exceptional, and are showing a powerful programme of regional and international art, such as Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton, which showed Corinna Wagner’s Terra Oceanus last summer, and the highly respected Burton at Bideford, which brought work by Louise Bourgeois to Devon this winter, and Bovey Tracey’s MAKE Southwest, with its exceptional offering of contemporary craft and touring art shows, but these places are few and quite literally far between in this vast county. 

What bodes well for Devon is the rise of the ambitious rural art venue, a growing trend made possible by the unlimited reach afforded to all galleries by the internet. Kestle Barton on Cornwall’s Helford Estuary pioneered it, and more recently Hauser & Wirth at Bruton in Somerset perfected it. Devon surely deserves the same kind of investment. While I am dreaming of that, I have plenty here to feed my passions: the aforementioned Mat Chivers has a series of film installations and other important public projects planned here in Devon for 2024; MAKE Southwest is presenting PULP, an exhibition of the strange and beautiful world of paper art; and I have a long list of studio visits booked that will keep me thinking and writing until Christmas. And as hoped, all my wonderful Cornish friends and artists have stayed in my life, for which I thank them with all my heart, so no losses, just more friends and more fantastic art to see.

Mercedes Smith is a specialist in Modern and Contemporary Art and is Director of Fine Art Communications.


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