Seeing the light – arts in Pembrokeshire

More than anywhere else in Wales, Pembrokeshire harbours a wealth of artistic talent. Arts student Ffion Griffith goes on a voyage of discovery...

There’s something special about this little peninsula with its quality of light and unspoilt natural terrain. It’s a visual feast, so it comes as no surprise that creative folk have settled here, drawn by such inspirational surroundings.

My first port of call was Fishguard and the exquisitely embroidered Last Invasion Tapestry. The story behind its creation is almost as momentous as the historical event it recalls, a doomed French-American attempt to invade Britain from the headland above Fishguard in 1797. As a textile artist myself, I knew that such meticulous detail takes countless hours of patience. Walking along the length of this 100ft tapestry you can sense the labour of love involved in its creation by 77 local women, using 178 shades of wool.

Next stop was the West Wales Arts Centre and a welcome from all-round creative connoisseur Myles Pepper. The gallery hosts spectacular work by acclaimed artists like David Tress and James MacKeown, but what was most notable was the strong connection between Myles and each of his hand-picked artists. And it’s not just a gallery in the conventional sense. The centre also hosts thought-provoking lectures, music recitals and supper events (Myles happens to be a masterful cook).

Workshop Wales, in the depth of the country near Fishguard, is worth seeking out. This hidden gem, more than simply a space to view art, is a moving experience that relaxes and delights. A spacious barn-gallery houses an enchanting collection of paintings, sculptures and ceramics, many of which remind me of why Pembrokeshire is such a special, magical place. Mitchell Cleal, the softly spoken owner, has a genuine love for his area (‘why would I want to be anywhere else?’). His own sculptural pieces – beautiful forms emerging unexpectedly from Pembrokeshire’s natural surroundings – are a little like Workshop Wales itself.

The prolific patterns and kaleidoscopic colourways of Melin Tregwynt need no introduction. This woollen mill near Fishguard is now a global brand, prized by discerning shoppers for its super cool, super hot contemporary designs. A London Design Week collaboration with renowned interior store Heals has raised its profile even further. Who would have thought that such dazzling innovation and creativity springs from a 100-year-old family-run mill founded on a bedrock of traditional craft?

St Davids, more than anywhere else, is the artistic honeypot. Oriel y Parc is the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s eco-conscious visitor centre and art gallery. Manager Paula Ellis’s limitless enthusiasm sees emphasis placed on creative activity, a refreshing change from the sometimes sterile atmosphere in contemporary art galleries. Alongside its impressive landscape exhibitions from Wales’s national collection, the centre wholeheartedly embraces local artists.

Artists’ residencies allow visitors to witness the creative process as it happens, breaking down barriers between maker and the public. One of the centre’s past artists in residence is local ceramicist Adam Buick. Visiting his charming rural studio I witnessed another important relationship being forged – this time, the bond between the artist and Pembrokeshire’s natural surroundings. Flecks of local slate add colour and texture to Adam’s work, whilst the coastline inspires striking patterning. Despite their exotic Asian origins, the simplicity of Adam’s timeless ‘Moon’ jars echoes the rolling Pembrokeshire hills. It came as little surprise to discover that his ceramics were chosen for the show apartments of the Shard in London.

Shopping was again on my mind at Solva Woollen Mill. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer welcome than that offered by Anna and Tom Grime. And on a sleepy Sunday afternoon the mill was humming with happy customers indulging in some homemade cake and a cup of tea whilst mulling over the impressive array of luxury crafts on sale. You can even take a nose around the working weaving shed before feasting your eyes on the stylish, beautiful finished rugs and runners in the mill shop. The quality is unrivalled, with clients including Prince Charles.

Art played a part in my accommodation that night at the grand Georgian country house of Elm Grove near Tenby, run by Alan and Jane Rees-Baynes. The house is liberally scattered with original paintings by Alan, an accomplished artist. He offers guests the opportunity to ‘live with his art’ and will happily discuss the meaning behind their conception. A tour of his converted cattle-shed studio is a delight for anyone interested in contemporary art.

The picture-postcard town of Tenby, with its rows of pastel-coloured houses perched above the harbour, is a piece of art in itself. What’s more, its narrow streets are full of little galleries like the White Lion Street Gallery, teeming with paintings, jewellery, etchings and ceramics, my favourite being those of local ceramicist Simon Rich whose delicate mottled patterning reminded me of crystalised marine fossils.

The influence of omnipresent water is also a theme exquisitely captured by watercolourist Naomi Tydeman, whom you can watch painting away in her small gallery, her beach wellies under the table a reminder that the outdoors is very much a part of life.

Well worth a visit too is Tenby Museum and Art Gallery perched on the headland, probably the most spectacularly located museum I have ever encountered. Alongside a collection of paintings by world-renowned artists like Kyffin Williams, John Piper and Augustus and Gwen John are displays of mesmerising historical artefacts ranging from a plush Victorian wheelchair to lions’ teeth from a Caldey Island cave.

On my way home at the rural gallery of Linda Norris I found myself surrounded by breathtaking coastal paintings. Not content with being a talented painter, Linda is continually experimenting and exploring new art media, embracing her other passions of poetry and local cultural history. Her current interests see her researching how humans have shaped the Pembrokeshire landscape and exploring the artistic potential of glass.

Feeling a tad overwhelmed and in awe of the creative individuals I had met I returned home to gather my thoughts and create a work of art inspired by my visit. The influence of the sea, a recurring theme, had left me feeling enlivened. So I set off to capture Pembrokeshire’s maritime light and colour in my own way – something I hope I have achieved through my paint and thread artwork.

Read more about arts and crafts and museums and galleries in Pembrokeshire.

 I have just had one of the best weekends ever, it was fantastic to experience coasteering. I have never laughed so much in my life! 
Louise, Bristol

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Seeing the light – arts in Pembrokeshire - Last Invasion Tapestry, Fishguard
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