I am delighted to focus on a wonderful new exhibition of art from a diverse group of practitioners, all focused on the Blackdown Hills.

By John Astley, local author and facilitator of Exmouth community education column, writes for the Journal.

The exhibition is being held at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton (thelmahulbert.com) until June 6. Many readers of The Exmouth Journal will not need any introduction to the hills, but for the uninitiated they are an Area of Natural Beauty (AONB) located roughly between the M5 and the A30/303, with Honiton to the south and Taunton to the north. The delightful river Culm transverses the AONB. The Ordnance Survey Explorer map 128 ‘Taunton and Blackdowm Hills’ is an ideal accompaniment to the AOBN.

Over to the artists to explain their involvement.

Paradise Found: New Visions of the Blackdown Hills at the Thelma Hulbert Gallery in Honiton, has just opened to enormous interest. It is co-curated by Tim Craven, Sandra Higgins and Fiona McIntyre, writing here, and is a prestigious bunch of painters, printmakers and photographers including Alan Rankle, Michael Porter, David Ferry, Michelle Dovey, Abi Kremer, Day Bowman, Marguerite Horner, Judith Jones to name a few.

“We were tasked with inviting 12 artists each, 36 in total including our own work. My group of painter-printmakers share a mutual love of vibrant colour, expressive mark-making and dynamic composition that I felt was not dissimilar to the Camden Town Group. Most of us navigated our specified locations with a grid reference to Applehayes, Clayhidon, Marlpit, Luppitt and Dumpdon Hill. East Devon is relatively unspoilt and still very recognisable from 1916, with buildings and trees still intact. Myself, Michelle Dovey and photographer Benedict Brain reinterpreted Robert Bevan’s Hay Field, 1916, and found that the once picturesque Hart’s Farm is flanked by enormous utilitarian cattle sheds, while the hayfields have turned to monocultures devoid of a diversity of wildlife. Michael Porter found little changed with Spencer Gore’s The Edge of the Wood, 1911. But we all happily found ourselves within a landscape of tranquility and respite from the stress of our modern Lives and endless news stories of war in the heart of Europe."

The Camden Town Group were a maverick avant-garde group of post-impressionist painters founded by Walter Sickert in 1911, London, and mostly focused on ordinary people going about their daily tasks in urban environments. With the imminence of WW1, painters Spencer Gore and Charles Ginner led by Robert Bevan, began making regular visits to the Blackdown Hills. Bevan first came here in 1912 as a guest of Harold Harrison, a landowner and amateur artist, at his home at Applehayes, Clayhidon. He returned with his wife and fellow painter Stanislawa de Karlowska and children, for extended periods for the rest of his life. Co-curator and painter-printmaker Fiona McIntyre also has family connections to East Devon. Her parents have lived in Tiverton for many years and been active members of the local community. Her father Archie is an Exmoor Trustee and her late mother Dilys was a botanical painter/textile designer. Fiona‘a great-grandfather was the Camden Town Group colourist painter Malcolm Drummond and was the inspiration behind her choice of artists for this exhibition.

‘Paradise Found’ offers a unique ‘then and now’ from the graphic, surreal, abstracted, expressionist and the hyper-real to the conceptual and post-modern, these Blackdown subjects survey recent artistic developments in the British landscape tradition as well as considering changes in the ecological, architectural, social and agricultural characteristics of the region. It is shining a light on an area of outstanding natural beauty to preserve it for future generations and is supported by the AONB and the British Arts Council. The catalogue has been generously sponsored by Susan J. May and the Exmoor Trust, Patrick Baty, Tim Craven and Hamilton-Hollows.

Sandra Higgins, co-curator said: "It has been a very enriching and exciting experience for me to co-curate this exhibition especially since I was able to work with the distinguished group of artists that I asked to participate in the show, because of their diversity in technique and practice. I was able to watch their unique works develop from their first visit to the assigned sites, some of which I was able to visit with them, to their finished interpretations of them.

"I believe this might have been just how The Camden Town Group of artists approached and enjoyed their opportunity to engage with the landscape of the Blackdown Hills when they created their works so many years ago. I hope this exhibition will add to the legacy of this area of outstanding natural beauty for years to come as well as highlight the individualistic responses artists have when they encounter the natural environment. The juxtaposition of the original artworks with the contemporary works should be fascinating for viewers to observe. After all, this famous idiom rings true.

‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, Margaret Wolfe Hungerford, 1878.

"Printmaker, Maxine Foster, was so enthusiastic that she took to the skies in a small plane over the area where Robert Bevan painted ‘The Plantation’ in 1916. From here she found the inspiration for her stunning intaglio monoprints."

Get in touch by John Astley (astley.john@gmail.com).