Salthouse art show is ready to sail

Ian Collins Salthouse 08 sees our arts writer, Ian Collins, turning curator – and a would-be magician transforming a landmark coastal church into a sea-going boat for work by 70 Norfolk-linked artists. Here he tells the story of getting the show afloat.

Ian Collins

Imagine a beacon church on the norfolk coast turned into a boat. I did. And, thanks to an invitation to curate Salthouse 08, that dream is now realised in a ship-shape show.

Drawing thousands of visitors, annual Salthouse displays have been held every 21st century July in the sublime medieval church near Cley. They are run by the North Norfolk Exhibition Project, whose stalwart organisers - mostly practising artists - pick a different curator each time.

My turn this time. Normally the rule is for new work by Norfolk-linked creators, but I have diverged slightly since the latest show also celebrates my 30 years as an arts writer for the EDP.

So among the works by 70 artists I've included older pieces by a handful of very eminent East Anglians who have particularly appealed over the years - the likes of Mary Newcomb, Margaret Mellis, Derrick Greaves and Leslie Marr. But every exhibit addresses my chosen title SEAhouse LIGHThouse SPIRIThouse.

For the theme of Salthouse 08 is a focus on the magical building, its history and setting beside the sea and in that marvellous northern light (so different from the softer eastern light of Southwold, which I know so well).

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I was lucky enough to win permission from Simon Jenkins to reprint the Salthouse essay in his book England's Thousand Best Churches. Even more amazingly, Nobel Prize winning-poet Seamus Heaney allowed me to quote his From Lightenings saga pondering the Celtic legend of the flying ship which got its anchor caught in a monastic altar rail.

Then, with paintings and embroideries lent by Aldeburgh Music, I plotted a tribute to John Craske (1881-1943), the Sheringham fisherman who became a leading naïve artist on the lines of a Norfolk Alfred Wallis.

I also held in my mind's eye an image of a vast Cromer crabber by James Dodds, the shipwright turned painter of vernacular boats, whose late father, Andrew, was the EDP's resident artist for almost 50 years and a good friend of mine.

For good and ill, the sea has been central to the Salthouse story and to a building which for centuries was literally a lighthouse. And I loved the medieval view of a church as a ship carrying us safely through the storms of life to the shores of paradise.

Although more swimmer than sailor, I hail from a long line of Broadland boat builders and also wanted to pay tribute to the strong traditions of craftsmanship which have kept Norfolk afloat through the ages.

I pictured the boat as a 21st century version of a medieval altarpiece - like the great retable surviving at Thornham Magna, near Eye, but lost almost everywhere else in the smashings and sackings of the Reformation. And all thanks to Salthouse's vicar, Father Phil Blamire, for enthusiastically endorsing the idea.

In the event, James delivered even more than I'd hoped - depicting the traditional north Norfolk inshore fishing vessel in the triptych form beloved of religious painters. And so, all at once, we see a monumental boat which is also split apart as if on the point of wreckage. It's both powerful and poignant.

With Jenkins, Heaney, Craske and Dodds as the guides, and inviting artists to visit the site and absorb its very special atmosphere, I then launched a call to potential exhibitors last autumn. Frankly, I could have staged a brilliant show with all the artworks reluctantly rejected.

As it was, I amassed a hugely varied but still wholly-coherent show - easily the largest in the history of Salthouse. (“Fools rush in,” I concluded, when wondering how on earth we'd fit everything in. And heroic hangers Margie Britz, Colin Miller and Jan Mattocks may well have ended up wanting to hang me.)

Key siting problems were resolved at an artists' meeting in the freezing church in February - the best solution of the day being to shift a copper-leaf laminated mainsail by Alison Mitchell from a side aisle to the outside of the tower. At a stroke the church was turned into a glittering vessel.

With brilliant administrative support from Rosie Glasgow, we sailed forth on a voyage into the unknown… on and on into ever deeper water.

Somehow we have landed with a site-specific display ranging across words, pictures, crafts, sculptures, music and light - taking in painting, print-making, drawing, collage, photography, textiles, stained glass, installations, mobiles, mirrors and models. The assembly moves from the avowedly abstract to the resolutely representational while always addressing a most magical space.

Jane Frost is connecting beach and churchyard shelters with lanterns strung across the marshes, while Viv Allen offers a camera obscura - a sort of igloo where shelterers can watch sky and surrounding scenes on the lines of a popular Victorian seaside attraction.

With works by the singular Norfolk sculptors Charlotte Howarth, David Holgate and Teucer Wilson I also honour Harriet Frazer's Snape-based Memorials by Artists which a few decades ago began the beautification of English churchyards with a splendid tombstone at Salle, near Reepham.

Andrew Schumann has constructed a tower of painted steel and glass and salt crystals, and Nick Ball a tower of light.

In the hollow of the church tower Karen Whiterod has created a LumenEssence mass of lit plastic which mimics a luminous kelp forest.

Keeping to the submarine theme, divers Dawn Watson and Rob Spray have made an installation of photographs of creatures inhabiting the wreck of a yacht called The Vera, just off the Cley coast. And sculptor Geoffrey Image has added copper flatfish, scorpion fish and giant squid with ghostly internal lights.

Judith Campbell's sisal nets hang from side bars in the aisles, the mesh reflecting the panes of the windows, opposite banners by Harry Cory Wright in which his two immaculate photographs of Salthouse appear to be disintegrating.

Elizabeth Peer's lit copper ship is suspended above the font, while her field of anchors grows in the churchyard. And the graffiti vessels famously carved in Salthouse bench-backs by bored Georgian choirboys are echoed in carvings by Derek Nice.

Margie Britz has gathered different coloured sand and clay from Hunstanton, Weybourne and Overstrand for a subtle installation in the clerestory window sills, while above spin a great sail motif by Colin Miller and an Azimuth constellation of starfish by Liz McGowan.

Azimuth - the ancient art of navigation by the stars - is also the chosen title for a colourful diamond by the abstract painter John McLean, which appears to be balancing on the apex of the arch leading to the tower (a huge nightmare for the hangers). It's reflected in Keith Pomeroy's brooding Creation Myth above the North Door.

John McLean - on whom I am currently writing a book - also has a Jacob's Ladder series between the north aisle windows. These rivers of pigment are like ghosts of the stained glass windows once shining here.

My beloved birds of the Cley and Salthouse marshes feature in the prints of Robert Gillmor, watercolours of Helen Bullard and stained-glass panels by Robina Jack.

But Robina's husband Guy Taplin - subject of my 2007 book Bird on a Wire - has swapped his usual avian theme for the bawdy tradition of the ship's figurehead. His resulting carving is part-mermaid, part-barmaid and wholly a riot.

Abstract images by Susan Gunn, Michael Horn and Elizabeth Humphries are balanced by coastal prints by Angie Lewin and H.J. Jackson and a wacky Hallelujah Chorus painting and print by Brian Lewis in which a Salthouse choir joins angelic trumpeters in the churchyard.

Katherine Hamilton's panoramic coastscapes contrast with tall panels of charcoal church interiors by Gerard Stamp. Both artists will feature in a pending Anglia/Sky film series on Edward Seago.

Royal Academician Norman Ackroyd recounts a north Norfolk walk in oil, watercolour and prints, with separate local journeys reflected in suites of paintings by Caroline McAdam Clark, Tessa Newcomb and Peter Baldwin.

I am especially excited about a Flood collaboration between Bungay-based composer Roger Eno and abstract artist Dom Theobald, the suite of pictures hanging in the south aisle and the soundtrack looped at intervals through the show. CDs are on sale at £9 apiece and there will also be a live concert on August 1.

It's a great pleasure to include dazzling work by artists from Walcott's Barrington Farm day centre for adults with learning difficulties but innate creativity. Talents such as Barbara Symmons, Michael Smith, Ian Partridge and James Gladwell are already stars of the world of untrained, “outsider” art.

In a show-within-a-show, the meditative space of the Lady Chapel is underlined by Brian Whelan's paint-and-tin-foil depiction of the Walsingham legend and further reflections on the role and nature of lady chapels.

And, as a curator's conceit, I am also exhibiting my own designs in what is a rather serious joke. I won't give the game away beyond saying Down With Health And Safety…

Approaching Salthouse on the A149 coast road you can't fail to note that an exhibition is underway thanks to enormous and exquisite banners by John Midgley. They also announce a new ten-mile Salthouse Sculpture Trail running through beautiful countryside to Holt and Kelling, the brainchild of the North Norfolk Exhibition Project's John Millwood.

John and his wife Yvonne do a great deal of work for the arts in north Norfolk and I dedicate this exhibition to them.

Salthouse 08: SEAhouse LIGHThouse SPIRIThouse runs from July 3 until August 3, 10am-5.30pm daily. Entry free. Most works are for sale. A programme of talks, recitals and concerts opens with Sea Fever, a marine celebration in poetry, prose, music and song featuring Patience Tomlinson, David Timson and Jonathan Rutherford in the church from 7.30pm on Sunday. Tickets £8, from Holt and Wells tourist information centres, at the exhibition or on the door.

There is also a superb series of workshops (details on