Issue 230
March/April 2024

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Apr 19, 2024

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Into McTaggart Country

Nick Jones on the Coquet River school

Luke McTaggart River Coquet at Morwick

NEXT TIME you find yourself heading south from Edinburgh on the east coast main line, watch out for two striking landmarks to port, just south of Alnmouth; the tower crowning the keep of Warkworth Castle, and the extraordinarily elegant mushroom shaped Morwick water tower.

You're in McTaggart country. An Amble man through and through, Luke McTaggart, he of the 'Coquet River School' of artists, is well placed to observe and paint his native land, sea and townscapes.

And does he paint! 'The Morwick Paintings', his recent exhibition at Alnwick Playhouse, show the river at Morwick, upstream from Amble, over a year to autumn 2023. They take you right into the changing moods and tenses of this hidden, well-wooded river-scape.

Acrylic can have an inert, flat, lifeless quality. Not here. Luke's work imbues the way water, moving or still, reflects light. A master of colour, capturing the extraordinarily vibrant acid green, bordering on yellow, of foliage in spring, he's equally adept and at home composing amongst Amble's housing estates, or riverside, using block of colour to draw out abstract patterns and shapes.

A dab hand with grey too. There's a lot of it about on the east coast, when sea, sky and land are obliterated by the steamy dampness of the haar. Below Morwick the Coquet snakes its way seaward, curve after curve, enjoying a last, long, lingering, embrace around Warkworth before toppling over the weir at the head of the estuary,where it stretches, straightens and slackens as it merges into the North Sea.

Had you been here on July 6, 1935 you might have seen RMS Mauretania steaming north. The town clerk messaged "Greetings from Amble, last port in England, to the finest ship on the seas."

Not for long, sadly, for it was off to the breakers' yard at Rosyth. Amble too was fast heading for dissolution. A busy coal-exporting port for a century, thousands of ships were loaded from its dockside staithes. The last shipment left in 1969, leaving the town forlorn and rudderless, searching for a new identity.

No surprise that it began to appeal to artists, attracted by the magical mix of sea, seabirds, boats, light, and relatively affordable accommodation. Reinventing itself as "The Friendliest Port", arts and culture helped transform post-industrial angst and ennui.

An interesting, some might say quirky, place to live, work, visit, or moor your yacht. The enlightened Amble Development Trust has helped, willing and able to invest in tourism, the arts and culture, including the "Bord Waalk" sculpture trail, twelve site specific works inspired by the estuary's birds.

Luke had a head start, being Amble born and bred, but, these days, he's far from alone. It's tempting to say, these things just happen, but dig a bit and you'll usually find people with the vision, determination, commitment and inspiration to translate dreams into reality.

Take Dry Water Arts. It's an independent not-for-profit initiative, the brainchild of two inspiring, inspired people. Frances Anderson's creativity is literally immersive, inspired by water. She should know – she's swum the English Channel!

Paula Turner's inspiration is movement, dance, and physical theatre. Formerly derelict, the building has been converted with such care and thought, making it welcoming, accessible, and dementia-positive. The programme embraces yoga, meditation, and dance, as well as exhibitions, workshops and events.

I saw recent work by Geoffrey Bradford, sculptor, and much more. Part owner of a light aircraft, his paintings and collages of Northumberland from the air show it in a different light; I just hope they weren't done hands-free of the joystick!

The word art seems old-fashioned and irrelevant here, where there is a recognition that human beings are naturally creative. It's all about allowing, encouraging and enabling people to express and release their 'inner Beethoven', regardless of mental or physical condition, or mayhem in the world outside.

Embedded in its community, a place for one and all, Frances and Paula have won trust and understanding for the arts and imagination, not as an optional add-on, but a valid way of life, career and calling, central to the vitality and well-being of both individuals and their communities.


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