For centuries artists have been inspired by dramatic waves, sandy shores, towering cliffs and sunny seaside scenes. None more so than in one picture-perfect North Yorkshire fishing village. Nick Ahad went along to find out what’s the draw.
I don’t really want to write this article. If you already know Staithes, you will understand why writing in public about the most beautiful secret on the Yorkshire coast feels like something of a betrayal.
When it comes to Staithes, those of us in the know are happy to let the tourists visiting Yorkshire go elsewhere. To the adventurous travellers, we give you Robin Hood’s Bay with a smile and a wave or there’s Whitby with its bustling streets and majestic abbey. And a fine time people will have; both wonderful places to while away a day or several.
For those familiar with the best kept secret of the Yorkshire coast though, there is always a sense that we would rather keep Staithes to ourselves, but it might be time to share the secret.
I’m not sure how one finds out about Staithes. It’s highly unlikely that you stumble across the village, sitting as it does in a harbour, well disguised at the end of a street off the main coastal road. However it happens, once you do discover Staithes, it feels as though you haven’t found it so much as it has found you. And once Staithes has found you, it has you forever.
There are, it transpires, some folk more generous than I when it comes to sharing news of this coastal Yorkshire haven. Indeed, there are those who want to shout loud and proud of this gem of a tiny village. Some of them are even among the 809 population who have the great fortune to call Staithes home.
One person who ticks the boxes of both resident and evangelist of Staithes is Rob Shaw, an artist with one heck of a story who is happy to tell the whole world about the harbour he calls home.
Staithes is a special place for many reasons, one of which is the relationship the town has had with artists, an inexorable story of passion that has lasted for over a century. It began in 1880 and over the following thirty years, Staithes became a focal point for painters who came to capture the town and the coast to which it clings including Gilbert Foster, Joseph Bagshawe and Dame Laura Knight. There were so many artists drawn to the place that they became known as the Staithes Group.
Since that extraordinary thirty year epoch, artists have continued to be drawn to the town, many painting Staithes over and over again. Staithes and its appeal to artists from around the world is brilliantly embodied in the story of Rob Shaw.
Sitting in Staithes Gallery on a bright, sunny day, Rob sits in the back room, surrounded by his paintings. “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why,” he says. “Mark Twain said that and it kind of became the motto that I live by.” And how.
With that quote the American writer really did nail the life experience of Rob Shaw. Born in Derbyshire, it was while looking at a mobile tea van in an industrial estate in Wootton Bassett that he discovered the reason why he was born. I realise some of that sentence seems very odd, but that is what I meant to write. If we go a little further back, I’ll explain.
Rob failed art at school. Even though he enjoyed drawing, it’s the sort of failure that knocks you back and so art, he believed, would never be more than a hobby and certainly not a calling. So instead he became an interior architect.
“Apparently architects don’t need to draw. I studied in Newcastle and Teesside, graduated in 1997 when I started working with a hotel firm in Harrogate,” says Rob. “I was given a clothing allowance, a company car, I had a secretary and I was travelling all around Europe staying in four-star hotels.” Not bad, right? Well, of course right, but also maybe not.
“Four-star hotels are great, but they do get a little lonely.” It wasn’t just the loneliness that was the problem. Even though he wasn’t ready to admit it to himself, Rob had a higher calling than interior architecture. “I was always creative, always drawing something, but being told that I wasn’t any good at school, meant I hadn’t thought about art as any sort of career,” he says.
In the 1990s his parents sold up in Derbyshire and moved to Boulby to renovate a cottage that sits high above Staithes, a mile to the north-west. Rob hadn’t thought about art since school. Staithes, though, as artists for over a century have discovered, makes you think about art whether you want to or not.
“This was in the 1990s when one year the tide came in and up over the breakwaters. The water came right up the village and into the streets. I brought my camera and took some photos then went away, bought a board and panel, three or four oil colours, a palette knife and painted this dark and stormy picture of Staithes,” he says. His parents were impressed by the painting, but Rob didn’t think much of it. Without his knowledge, he says, they took it to a gallery in nearby Castleton.
After failing art, he continued to draw a little, but it was only when Rob clapped eyes on Staithes that he, like so many before him, felt compelled to paint again. He was by this point working in a very cushy job in architecture. To use the vernacular of certain websites, after his parents took his painting of Staithes to the gallery in Castleton, what happened next will stun you. “They offered me a solo show.”
So, in his spare time from his interior architecture job, often painting through the night and using frames his brother had made, he created enough paintings for a solo show. It sold out, the paintings going to the tune of £5,000. Here’s the really weird bit, Rob just went back to work - and not as a painter, but in his architecture firm. “I trained for six years to become an architect and I just didn’t see painting as a career. It was just something I liked to do,” he says.
By now Rob was working down south and making a good living. The Castleton Gallery had requested more paintings and he obliged, providing enough work for two more shows, but Rob had little real interest in what was happening with this ‘hobby’. Then the stars aligned and Rob had his Mark Twain epiphany.
His parents had been putting some of his old paintings in the famous Staithes institution, The Cod and Lobster pub (an absolute must stop when you visit Staithes, as I’m starting to suspect you will). Once a month they would hang a painting and Rob later discovered that the paintings would always divide the village. One particular couple who always loved the paintings were David and Alison Milnes, who would visit Staithes regularly. They loved the paintings on first sight on a Friday and when it came to Sunday, the paintings would be sold.
David and Alison started asking about the artist, discovered Rob’s parents and were soon requesting paintings of Rob’s to hang in their art gallery. They started requesting more and more - the paintings were selling.
Remember the tea van in Wootton Bassett? One day, Rob was in his office in Wiltshire, looking out of the window and the tea van arrived. He looked at the queue of people and could identify not just every person in the queue, but what they were going to order. Around the same time David and Alison called to tell him he had sold £5,000 worth of paintings in a day. He discovered the reason why he was born. In the same hour as that phone call he’d handed in his notice and left within the month (turning down the extra £10,000 he was offered to stay) bought a cottage in Staithes and was painting full-time. “It was all I wanted to do, I realised at that moment. Not look at a queue and know what everyone would order, but be by the sea and paint.”
That’s what he was born to do. Since then he has exhibited in New York, London and Tokyo and exhibited and sold work in the Royal Academy. With one particular piece selling for almost £10,000. Rob has painted Staithes since the mid-1990s, “If you wander around the village, you see something different every time. Staithes has become a haven for me. I don’t think I could ever get bored of Staithes or of painting it. I’ve sold work in different countries but Staithes Gallery is the only place I now show my art.”
Which brings us to the Staithes Festival, a now annual event in the village. Rob says: “Seven years ago a group of us sat around a table and discussed the fact that it would be good to celebrate art in Staithes and the heritage of art in the area. That year we ran our first festival, around 40 artists exhibited in the village’s cottages that were turned into ‘popup galleries’.” Fast forward to 2018 and that had grown to 170 artists in over 100 cottages all around Staithes.
“We thought it would be a nice thing to do to bring people here and show them some art but in a way that’s respectful to the village and its residents,” says Rob. “This year we had about 7,000 people over one weekend.”
Rob looks a little sheepish. “We don’t want to turn it into Glastonbury. Maybe it will grow geographically outside of Staithes, but it’s great to bring so many people here to see the place.” He’s saying the words, but I know there’s a part of his heart that wants to keep the extraordinary secret that is Staithes to himself.
With the festival already in the diary for 2019 and artists booking some cottages up to 2021, I think we all know now that the Staithes secret is out.
This article was taken from This is Y 2019.