PUBLISHED: 16:52 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013
With that famous, but faintly absurd, chorus line of cayatids, the cafes and the bars, Montpellier is the most Bohemian area of Cheltenham.Words and photography by Mark Child
Cheltenham is a town that might have been designed for artists to capture on paper and canvas. It is not a typically English town, and it is certainly not of the Cotswolds, in which it is firmly embedded. Yet in matters of social manners and history, it has come to represent the very embodiment of what we would regard as Englishness, such as in Regency Bath. Architecturally, it has none of the local vernacular of its own age, or of any age that went before, nor of its own region. It is effectively a foreigner, set down of a piece in an unfamiliar landscape, and required to develop very much in accordance with a particular kind of fashion.
That was the 18th-century fashion for spas. In Cheltenham, and in the Montpellier area in particular, this meant a tentative investigation of the possibilities from c1718, which was when Mr Mason capitalised on the potential of a saline spring in his field. He encased it in a little rustic building with a thatched roof, and although he may not thereafter have enhanced it much - either architecturally or in a marketing sense - he nonetheless set the precedent for others to locate saline springs about the place and make rather more of them. As spa houses went up in Cheltenham, they increasingly looked towards Bath for their architectural character. This influenced, after about 1780, a wholesale acceptance of change into what would rapidly become a completely different town.
The transformation of medieval village Cheltenham into a likeness of Regency pretension and elegance was accomplished with indecent haste, and the royal patronage - in the shape of George III, consort and daughters - only served to heighten. How it was all accomplished is what has always made the Montpellier area, in particular, so attractive to artists, and continues to be the object of contemporary painters' attentions. It was in Montpellier that the gaiety and lightness of touch of the Regency period underpinned the social development of Cheltenham through its spa culture. The place was fashionable enough, even before Napoleon did for the tourist potential of the continental spas, and thereby boosted the home-grown alternatives.
It was not just the spas that prospered hereabouts, embedded within their classical buildings, entrances and walks. Long promenades were laid down towards them, and, upon their approaches, pleasure grounds were set out and designated for their patrons. Regency Cheltenham was conceived in a garden, and everywhere the grounds were planted with trees, shrubs, and flowers. Montpellier Gardens is a relict of that time, and the buildings around it illustrate how speculative builders of the age were able to capitalise on the need for lodgings. Within half a century it was all over; if the spas were the catalyst for modern Cheltenham, then fashionable Cheltenham - a place of real elegance, wit, and architectural accomplishment - was achieved after their demise.
It was primarily the architectural illustrator who first found rich sources of inspiration here. There are no ruins, no pastoral scenes to delight the romantics, but plenty to amuse the caricaturists of Georgian England, for whom activities at the various spas provided rich pickings. It was the buildings themselves that were drawn and painted from the moment they were put up, lithographed and etched. Landscapes were hardly ever simple panoramas, but devolved on some building that formed the focal point of the piece. And what made Cheltenham unique in this respect was that the artists of the 18th and 19th centuries were not depicting the past: the classical buildings clamouring for their attention were then spanking new. They drew public places like the Pittville Pump Room; they drew the entrances to the spas of Montpellier; and they drew the spas themselves.
Indeed, were one to ask where there might be an artists' quarter in Cheltenham, there is no doubt that Montpellier sounds the part. It is undeniably the most obviously bohemian area of the town. It has the famous but faintly absurd chorus line of caryatids. It has its cafs and its bars. And it has the gloriously decadent entrails of the Edwardian era in its sublimely atmospheric Kandinsky hotel, named after the abstract artist.
Look along the topmost storeys of Montpellier's terraces. Here, if you want to see them as such, might be the former pitiful garrets of starving poets in spiritual torment with their souls, and the eyries of temperamental artists romanticising the likenesses of their surroundings or their subjects. In truth, these were most probably servants' quarters, but it is nice to consider the probability that they housed a few aspiring artists. I say this because Montpellier today is at the epicentre of local artistic output. Annually, the Imperial Gardens provide the backdrop for the annual Cheltenham Open Air Art Exhibition, which in 2008 will have its thirty-ninth outing. There are a number of art galleries in the village; and throughout the year, art exhibitions also take place in some of its churches and halls.
The arts scene in Montpellier took a great leap forward in 2007 when the international artist, Cheltenham native and resident Pamela (P.J.) Crook opened the Garden Gallery in the newly refurbished Proscenium Building in the Montpellier Gardens. This building, formerly an outdoor theatre of c1890, had become derelict, and its recent physical renaissance is effectively part of the general restoration of the Montpellier Gardens. These were laid out in 1831 as pleasure grounds for the users of the Montpellier Spa; and the nearby bandstand is said to be the oldest in the country that is still in use. It was cast in Coalbrookdale in 1864 for the Jearrad brothers, who took over the spa. This is a very pleasing situation in which to view work by contemporary artists.
The project originated with a consortium of Cheltenham artists, who had the idea for restoring the building as an exhibition space. A community interest company of five local art groups was formed in 1994, comprising the Cheltenham Art Club, the Cheltenham Group of Artists, Cheltenham Artists Open Houses, Cotswold Art Club, and Fosseway Artists. Between them, they represent more than 500 local artists.
The Proscenium Building was renovated and refurbished in its likeness of c1923, the earliest moment for which there was a photograph. The architect of the remodelling was Malcolm Glenister of the Beswick Partnership at Tewkesbury, and the work was carried out by the building firm Basil Wyatt & Sons of Oxford. They also had the contract for renovating the nearby kiosk and public toilets, and re-laying the tennis courts, all under the auspices of LDA Design of Oxford. All of the work had to be carried out whilst the Montpellier Gardens remained open to the public, and, as an added difficulty, during the Cheltenham Cheese Festival that took place in the grounds.
It was the artistic community interest company members' work that went into the launch exhibition, which was seen by some 2,500 of the public during its ten-day run. Thirty-five individual artists, ad hoc groups of artists, and local art organisations have booked their 2008 exhibitions into the Garden Gallery. The building can also be used for stage performances, with fold-aside doors opening up to an audience in the space between the Proscenium and the bandstand.
The Gardens Gallery was recently awarded 2,000 by the Summerfield Charitable Trust, to help with its start-up costs. In recent years, the same organisation has awarded funding to the Cheltenham Artists Open Houses, towards the cost of roadside banners in Montpellier. Ronald Summerfield was a multi-millionaire, semi-reclusive art and antiques dealer who lived on the corner of Montpellier Avenue and Montpellier Spa Road. He owned two properties; living in one, and selling paintings, porcelain, books and furniture in the other. It was widely alleged locally that he simply refused to sell to anyone whom he didn't take to when they entered his shop.
Even as a young boy, Ron was an avid collector, and sold antiques from a corner of his father's greengrocer's shop. He came to Cheltenham in the 1930s, where he continued to buy and sell whatever took his fancy, and to collect with such an intensity that eventually both of his premises were packed to the rafters with his acquisitions. When he needed to raise extra cash, he did so by selling pieces through Charles Fortesque at Christie's Fine Art in the Promenade. Charles gradually came to realise that the dealer had a lot of valuable items, and persuaded him - in the absence of any preferred alternative - to establish a Trust, so that after his death the proceeds of his estate might help the arts, and the elderly and the needy in the locality.
This was duly arranged with Charles Fortesque and solicitor Martin Davies, and signed by Ronald Summerfield, when the latter suddenly died in 1989. According to Lavinia Sidgwick, the Summerfield Charitable Trust's current administrator: "Ron had absolutely no idea of what he had, or of its huge cumulative value. He did not know he was a millionaire, and he lived a very sparse life." Both properties were sold, and there were a number of sales of their contents, including one over four days at the Cheltenham Racecourse. The Trust presently holds around 9 million, and makes grants of about 400,000 each year.
Montpellier is still a place where paintings may be bought. Martins Gallery in Montpellier Parade is unusual in that it is to be found in a private house, and came about quite simply because the owners' own collection of paintings was beginning to outgrow them. It is one of the most successful galleries of its kind in Cheltenham, although, when you read this, it will be closed, pending refurbishment, with an aim to reopening in 2009.
The gallery was established in Montpellier in 2003, in a Regency villa that had been converted c1900. Its owners, Ian and Christine James had then been collecting Victorian-to-modern British watercolours, and the work of the St Ives School with a particular interest in the abstract, for some thirty years. Latterly, their interest had widened to include Vietnamese art. This was not their first incursion into art dealing.
When they lived in south Buckinghamshire, their art collection hung about all the walls of their home, and paintings were stacked up in their upstairs rooms. Ian, who was at the time helping to promote the work of an Italian artist, opened up his home for art weekends and sales. He thought then, and still does, that prospective clients prefer to see paintings hanging around the walls of a real house, although he is prepared to admit that some people are less comfortable knocking on the door of a residential property than they might be visiting a commercial art gallery in obvious business premises.
The fledgling Martins came to a grinding halt whilst the couple removed to Barcelona, then to Singapore, and finally Paris. In this period, which lasted for about a decade, they made a considerable number of contacts in the art world, and Ian formed the notion of moving western art into the east, and bringing eastern art into the west. They came to Montpellier almost by accident, thought that it 'felt a bit like Paris', and fell in love with the place.
With no real experience of running an art gallery, the Jameses opened Martins Gallery in their Montpellier home in 2002, initially with an exhibition of Vietnamese art. Not a single item sold on launch night, and they began to wonder whether the move to Cheltenham had been a wise one, and worked seven days a week for the first year to get things going. Since then, Martins Gallery has almost become a victim of its own success, which is why Ian and Christine are taking time out to take stock, retrench, and return with renewed vigour next year.
The artist Ruth End has been living and working in Montpellier for the past twenty-five years. Over the last dozen years or so, she has been developing a print-making style of her own, using layered stencils to produce images of the trees and architecture of Montpellier, as well as representations of other landscapes around Cheltenham. Two of her early commissions were large donation boxes for the Pittville Pump Room at the other end of the town, and for the Holst Museum. Ruth has been involved with the Cheltenham Artists' Open Houses almost since the scheme began, and regularly shows at the D'Arcy Gallery in nearby Well Walk and with the Cheltenham Group of Artists.
Philippa and Kevin Blackham are husband-and-wife partners in Burlington Contemporary Art, in The Courtyard, Montpellier Street. She was for fifteen years a radio presenter and broadcaster. He, a former graphic designer, works in mixed media to create architectural images, still life, cityscapes and seascapes in a way that he describes as combining calligraphy with graphic images to give a textured result. Kevin, who comes from Shropshire and trained at the Reigate School of Art & Design in Surrey, has won awards for his work.
The couple moved back to the west Midlands when "we realised we were paying more for the rent on his studio in the expensive south-east of England, than the cost of our mortgage". They dipped their toes in the waters of art- dealing in Herefordshire, where Kevin now has a studio near Ledbury, and, in 2002, bought the well-established gallery premises in The Courtyard at Montpellier. Earlier in the millennium, there was still a great interest in nave art; now, says Philippa, the move is back towards traditional-style landscapes. Kevin's work is of a type that sits comfortably within interiors of virtually any age.
Amongst the artists on their books is the ubiquitous Tim Bulmer who, although nothing whatsoever to do with Montpellier, is nonetheless well represented in its pubs, bars and clubs, where his style goes down particularly well. They also have Robert Goldsmith, the Cheltenham watercolour artist who has painted much of Montpellier, and Ian Weatherhead, whose work is also to be found in the Montpellier Wine Bar.
In 1986, Robert Goldsmith moved into the flat he still occupies in Montpellier, and has since become extremely well known for his watercolours of the place. Now a member of the renowned Cotswold group, the Dobunni Painters, he came to Cheltenham from Brighton via London, with a degree in graphic art and an early career in illustration and design to call on. For ten years, he was represented by the Montpellier Gallery, and this association has continued with its successor, the Burlington. Robert paints street scenes in what he calls 'a loose style' and likes to depict wet days - 'good for shifts of light and reflecting the buildings' - and snowy streetscapes - 'because otherwise recognisable objects can become almost abstract'. He has painted most of Montpellier's streets, and many of the landmark buildings such as the Montpellier Wine Bar, and the Kandinsky Hotel.
Stephen and Jean Loquens opened a gallery at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1980, and continued to run it there until 2003. The Loquens Gallery has been a fixture in Montpellier Avenue, Cheltenham, since 1994, where it is arranged on two floors of a building in a block that was put up c1830. It has a fascinating frontage at street level, with pilasters and a trio of round-headed windows with slender muntins. The business deals in original paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries in watercolours and oils. Smaller framed items tend to be on the ground floor, and larger ones are on the floor above.
Stephen's specialises in bespoke framing and restoration. He once explained to me that one might not realise if a picture has been well-framed, but a picture that has been badly framed - for example, not in keeping with its period or style - is easily recognised. Unsurprisingly, he likes to give picture-framing advice to clients on a one-to-one basis.
The market for pictures has changed considerably over the last twenty-five years or so; more modern work is doing better now, which might be of local views or continental-style humour. Older-style pictures do well when reproduced as traditional greetings cards. Many of the pictures that now sell well in Montpellier would not do so in south Warwickshire, where the business began. Loquens has also been selling - for virtually all the time she has been creating them - Kathleen Caddick's etchings of tranquil landscapes with trees, which have also brought her commissions for the National Trust and the Woodland Trust. In recent years, the work of Sue Macartney-Snape has been much in demand at Loquens. She is the perceptive caricaturist whose social stereotypes illuminate Victoria Mather's words in the Daily Telegraph's magazine on Saturdays, and their ever-increasing list of books of the same ilk. Annie Tempest, who has the last amusing word each week in Country Life, is also much in evidence, and the artists Tim Bulmer and Beryl Cook have also met with success at Loquens.