Ilfracombe: where the art is

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 18 October 2018
Related property: Lower Knapp Farm
Ilfracombe: where the art is

Cutting-edge art is not the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the West Country. Devon is a county of cream teas, rolling hills and beautiful beaches, surely – not challenging artistic statements?

Well, a trip to Ilfracombe might make you think again.

Accounts differ as to exactly when, but sometime in the early noughties, one supposes, Damien Hirst, one-time enfant terrible of the late 20th and early 21st-Century British art scene (and today Britain’s richest living artist), paid a visit to the picturesque north Devon coastal town, and evidently liked what he saw. Enough to buy a home there, and to set up a restaurant – The Quay; a gallery to display his works; and a shop: Other Criteria.

Now as then, opinion of Hirst’s work is divided – not everyone goes a bundle on sharks in formaldehyde and dissected cows – but what seems certain is that his presence (both figurative and literal) has led Ilfracombe to grow from a simple but beautiful harbour town into an artistic hub in its own right.

Among the exhibits on display at Fleek, a recently-opened contemporary art gallery, is a brightly coloured skull by artist Martin Burton, who has just resettled in Ilfracombe – consciously or not, surely an homage to the work of the 1995 Turner Prize winner. Also on show are pictures composed of brightly coloured bottles by West Country artist Emma Gibbons – a former Hirst employee. The works are redolent of Hirst pieces such as his spot paintings and medicine cabinets.

Damien Hirst

Ironically, though his home and workshop will stay, Hirst has now, to all intents and purposes, departed from Ilfracombe; he is closing The Quay and selling or renting out his other properties, to concentrate on working in his studio. But he has left one very visible legacy.

Ilfracombe’s few remaining fishermen still ply their trade, of course, these days outnumbered by pleasurecraft – but since 2012 their navigation out to sea or, more pertinently, into port, has been made all the easier by having an unmistakeable landmark standing sentinel at the harbour mouth: Verity (pictured at top), a 20-metre-tall, 25-tonne stainless steel-and-bronze statue looking out across the Bristol Channel towards South Wales. The statue depicts a pregnant woman holding aloft a sword while carrying the scales of justice and standing on a pile of law books, and is described by its creator as a “modern allegory of truth and justice”.

As with all things Hirstian, the initial reaction to Verity was mixed. But over the years the locals have got used to her, and even come to love her. Residents speak of a "new optimism" in the town.

Thanks to Hirst. And thanks, especially, to Verity.

Devon heaven: a clifftop view of Ilfracombe

Ilfracombe is not exactly on the doorstep for holidaymakers at Lower Knapp Farm – but it is well worth the trip: a beautiful, quaint harbour town that has somehow found itself on the artistic leading edge.

Ilfracombe is 69 miles north-west of Lower Knapp Farm, via the A375, the A373, the A361, the M5, the A361 (again), the A399, the A3123, and finally rejoining the A361 for the last two miles. The journey will take about 1½ hours.

Jonathan Broom

Jonathan Broom

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