The Somerville Gallery and Maker Heights
By Melissa Wylie
Overlooking the Tamar Valley, the Somerville Gallery and the Maker Heights arts community is becoming a cultural oasis outside of Plymouth’s city bustle.
Perched on the highest hill of the breezy Rame Peninsula sits Maker Heights. This rural, Cornish setting, just over the River Tamar, could not be a more contrasting home for the Somerville Gallery since their relocation from Plymouth City Centre a year and a half ago.
The area is becoming a hub of culture and art – the crumbling Napoleonic barracks are already being used as artist studios and musician’s rehearsal rooms. Occasionally it becomes a sell-out gig venue with live music in the Energy Rooms tucked around the back.
The grounds make a basic campsite – it’s popular for walkers keen to make the most of this spectacular section of southwest coastline. A café serves good coffee and even better food for those passing by, and when strolling around Maker Heights, visitors can take in views in all directions. You really do feel a sense of escapism up here, particularly when you look down at the cramped, grey buildings of Plymouth.
The Somerville Gallery
It’s no wonder then that Paul Somerville moved his gallery up here to a place where it can really stretch its legs. Away from the hectic city, this impressive location complements the beautiful artwork he has on display. The works for sale are by established artists, therefore his visitors don’t make purchases on a whim and Paul doesn’t need to rely on passing trade. He can be picky with his location. “It’s a special place,” he tells me, as he waves me into his gallery. The temperature is in the single digits outside, but Paul does a good job of keeping the small building warm and welcoming. The gallery is located in the Guard House, where metal bars in the windows and a heavy, wooden, jail door hint at its past.
When his gallery was based in Plymouth, Paul came to show artists around Maker Heights and introduce them to studio spaces in the main building when he realised he was “missing a trick”. Moving his gallery to the area allowed him to not only continue displaying well-known works of art (Robert Lenkiewicz and Fred Yates share space on the walls), but he could also exhibit pieces by the artists working at Maker Heights. These artists based in the studios are part of a collective called the Rame School of Art. Their independent work is exhibited nationally and worldwide, but they come together annually when their work is displayed at reputable galleries.
An artist featured in the Somerville Gallery who doesn’t work at Maker Heights is Heather Jansch. Outside stands a driftwood horse sculpture and more are on display inside. Those who have visited the Eden Project may be aware of her work – there you can see much larger wooden horses on display. Paul comments on how cleverly each piece of wood has been used to form the features of the body and head, and I’m impressed by how a material many of us might kick around the beach can be so creatively used.
It’s this collection of work from such distinguished artists which attracts visitors to Paul’s gallery. The low-key location allows for his clients to relax and get to know the artwork before choosing to make a purchase. “In Plymouth people didn’t arrive in the right frame of mind. This is a spectacular place to arrive at”. Here you can easily park the car and there’s no chance of getting stuck in traffic.
The spectacular location of Maker Heights
There are hopes for Maker Heights to become a real centre for art in the future. ‘To create a place for the arts of national importance and international interest’ reads their mission statement. No set plans are in place at the moment, but the location has huge potential. “There are so many things which can be used up here,” says Paul. “It will be fantastic and so good for the whole area. We can attract events that wouldn’t have been able to happen before.”
I whole-heartedly agree. The place is already stunning, but bringing life to it will stop the historic buildings falling into disrepair. The ‘Evolving Places’ project has launched and has begun working on the exciting restoration and development of Maker Heights – advised by experts such as Dr Julian Munby (who advises Channel 4’s ‘Time Team’), surveys are being conducted at the moment. The next step is applying for planning permission for the developments. I can imagine the ideas being very popular. Art already looks very much at home up here.