Issue 196
Winter 2016

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Oct 22, 2017
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    Harbour Cottage – sixty years serving artists in the artists' town

    Mary Gladstone marks a solid achievement in the South West town

    STAND ON the intriguing concrete bridge that crosses the Dee in Kirkcudbright and look downriver and you get a fine view of the harbour with its fleet of fishing vessels.

    The day I visited my eye was caught by the Osprey, a scallop dredger, whose catch is processed by a local factory.

    Situated by the water is a small, well-preserved eighteenth century building. This is Harbour Cottage Gallery. Over the years, plenty artists have painted this scene. Kie Stewart, the gallery's bookings and exhibitions manager, is convinced it's the most painted view of Kirkcudbright.

    "I wouldn't mind a pound for every picture painted of that view!" he states. He has had a go at painting it himself, as have others, including artists W. S. McGeorge, David Gauld and the famous Kirkcudbright painter, Charles Oppenheimer (1875-1961).

    This spectacular view and the singularity of the town's architecture prompted enthusiasts in the 1950s to save the derelict Harbour Cottage from demolition. At that time, there was an interest in preserving Scotland's ‘little houses'. Too bad that a decade later, Glasgow City Council didn't take this idea to heart before knocking down many of its Victorian houses and in Edinburgh, the university, its George Square, not to mention St. James Square.

    Artist and town councillor, Dorothy Nesbitt (1893-1974) began the campaign in 1955, gaining support from the National Trust for Scotland. An appeal was organised to raise funds for the cottage's restoration, aided by the 80 year old Charles Oppenheimer. Some £ 800 was raised by the public and in June 1956, The Historic Buildings Council stumped up £ 1,000. Renovation work on the building began the following year in January and in May it was completed to the cost of £ 1,700. The gallery was opened on 6th September 1957 by Major Crichton-Stuart, Vice President of NTS.

    Architect, Antony Curtis Wolffe's renovation and conversion of Harbour Cottage was subtle and sympathetic. As an aficionado of Scottish vernacular architecture, he took care to preserve the original features, leaving the doors and sash windows unchanged, accentuating the modest, but dignified proportions of the eighteenth century building. Standing upstairs in the gallery's main exhibition room, are two benches that have a nautical feel about them and wouldn't look out of place on the deck of the Queen Mary or the Titanic!

    Although the campaign's main objective was to save Harbour Cottage, another was to create Kirkcudbright's first public gallery. It's significant, then, that as the gallery celebrates its 60th anniversary, Kirkcudbright is on the brink of founding a larger, grander art gallery, funded by a crowd of donors and organisations, in the old town hall in St. Mary's Street.

    Harbour Cottage Gallery was set up and run by a trust, with nine trustees. Sixty years on, the trust is still going. All are volunteers although they employ and pay three to four supervisors and a cleaner.

    What's impressive is that, in sixty years, this venue has never been idle. "The duration of our shows is two weeks, followed by a private exhibition lasting a week," says Kie. "Other galleries put on 3 to 4 shows a year while we do approximately 21-22."

    The gallery aims to interest people in art and get them to take up painting and other kinds of artistic activities. It invites exhibitors from the local community and, remembering how popular the Kirkcudbright area is with visitors, from farther afield like Cumbria and Durham.

    Harbour Cottage's annual open show is exactly what it says on the tin. Open. People may submit what they like and the trustees impose no standard on their work. Unlike the Spring Fling and its selection process, which is exclusive, Harbour Cottage, along with the Kirkcudbright Art Trail, is the opposite. Their aim is to encourage involvement in the arts. This attitude enables the gallery to choose from a generous pool of artists for its own programme.

    Harbour Cottage Gallery receives no grants or public funding, its sole income being from commissions on work sold in their own exhibitions. When it hires out its space for private shows, it doesn't take any commission. As a venue it's popular and is booked up for the rest of 2017 and all of 2018.

    There's no limit to what can be displayed and the gallery accepts a range of styles and media. Although they receive the titles of each work in advance so labels can be made, there's little time for the organisers to discover what'll be exhibited as they must set up on Sunday and open the following day.

    Organised by the artist Charles Oppenheimer, the gallery's first exhibition, highlighted the paintings of deceased artists associated with Kirkcudbright. This month Harbour Cottage Gallery celebrates its 60th anniversary by showing a collection of paintings and crafts painted and worked by artists and craft workers active in and around Kirkcudbright in 1957.

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