It is only a matter of time when walking the streets of Harrogate before you stumble across one of its many art galleries.
There are around a dozen clustered within a short walking distance in the town centre and together they’re helping Harrogate establish a reputation as a centre for art in the North.
Some, Walker Galleries and McTague of Harrogate, to name just two, have been part of the furniture here for decades. Others, like Messums and Watermark, opened their doors in a year that saw the global coronavirus pandemic leave many high street businesses struggling to survive.
“There have always been a good handful of galleries in the town,” says Paul McTague, who opened McTague of Harrogate, on Cheltenham Mount, in 1981. “But over the last ten years, it has become a really good centre for art.
“The nice thing is there’s all sorts of different styles and periods of art that people specialise in so there’s a really good cross section. Even in times like this, people are still opening up galleries. Harrogate has become a bit of a destination (for art).”
Location was key for Liz Hawkes, who opened Watermark Gallery on Royal Parade with her husband Richard, an acclaimed paper conservator, in February last year.
They launched their gallery online five years ago and began searching for physical premises after the success of a number of pop-up events, including a three-month temporary exhibition in the town.
“Harrogate has always had a tradition of art and culture,” says Liz. “It’s a hugely attractive place and I think location is really important.
“Yorkshire is so varied in the countryside and what it offers that it attracts a lot of brilliant artists, and Harrogate is a beautiful town centre. The area we’re in is an area that I think is a real cultural quarter now for Harrogate.”
The town has long had a reputation as a visitor destination. In the late 1700s, people were travelling to the area in increasingly large numbers to experience the reported curative powers of its spring waters.
A number of accommodation and entertainment venues were established during the Georgian and Victorian periods to provide facilities for visitors and cater for the social element of spa town life.
The baths and pump rooms were, in time, accompanied by assembly rooms, parades, libraries and theatres.
The legacy of that heritage continues today; official tourism body Visit Harrogate describes how the town’s streets “buzz with busy shops and eateries” and an eclectic cultural scene. And it remains a go-to destination for relaxation and indulgence.
Richard McTague, who has run RedHouse Originals gallery, next door to his uncle Paul, for ten years, says a lot of the art trade comes from people visiting the town for long weekends.
The past decade, he says, has seen more people enticed to Harrogate, with the town now known for its boutique shops and a diverse hospitality sector, as well as a varied annual events programme and literary festivals.
“There’s been a real explosion of great bars, restaurants and shops,” Richard says. “There’s lots of independent businesses, including galleries, who are passionate about what they do, which has added a new dimension. It’s great to see the area thrive.”
Richard, like several of Harrogate’s gallery owners, notes the town’s strong association with antiques and collectables.
Indeed, the Northern Antiques Fair, first established in 1951, has been a staple in the town’s event calendar, featuring a wide range of antiques and art spanning the centuries.
Next year, the show is moving to Leyburn, with the director saying it was “sensible to relocate” due to the current use of Harrogate Convention Centre, the usual venue, as an NHS Nightingale Hospital.
Andrew Stewart, owner of 108 Fine Art gallery on Cold Bath Road, says he has observed a shift from antique shops to art galleries on Harrogate’s streets in the 20-odd years since opening up in the town.
“At that time, Harrogate was known for its antiques and antique shops and had been for decades. It was the antiques centre of the North,” he says.
“Old furniture then started going out of fashion to some extent about 15 years ago, and at that point many of the antique shops relocated and more and more galleries were coming into the town.
“Since then, things have moved more away from antiques and into art, contemporary and historical. It’s a thriving scene in Harrogate.”
Whilst new galleries are continuing to open in the town – Messums Yorkshire, for example, launched on James Street last July, with director Johnathan Messum recognising the strength of the gallery scene in the area and saying he was “very aware we’re stepping into a town which has already proved itself in the art world” – a core of art dealers have been established in the community for many years.
The Mercer Art Gallery, home to the district’s collection of fine art, also has a long history. It was opened in 1991 in the 200-year-old Harrogate Promenade Rooms, one of the town’s first purpose-built spa buildings, and replaced the public Harrogate Art Gallery, which had opened in 1930.
The “new” gallery came after a crisis point for Harrogate’s art in 1984, when several paintings were found lying in a flooded basement, but as early as the 1950s, there had been talk of relocating the district’s expanding collection to somewhere with more space.
Sixty-four-year-old Paul can recall a “thriving” arts scene in the town as he grew up in the Sixties. His father, George, an artist, lecturer and restorer, was involved from the early days in the Harrogate Decorative and Fine Arts group and the Harrogate Festival of Arts and Science. “At home there were always artists around, as they organised exhibitions,” he says.
Walking around Harrogate today, gallery windows hint at the vast and diverse offering of art that is available to view and purchase in the town. Far from a saturated market though, several of the owners paint a positive picture of having galleries clustered in close proximity.
“It’s always good to have numerous galleries in one area because it attracts people who come particularly to look at the art scene,” says Helen Sutcliffe, of Sutcliffe Galleries on Montpellier Street.
“The area then becomes a destination spot for people looking to invest in art. It seems Harrogate has now become the art centre of the North.”
There is space within it for each of its numerous galleries, Liz maintains.
“They are very different and together are bringing a real focus on quality art to the North. At the end of the day it’s about selling the right product to the right people. Harrogate gets good visitor numbers and if they’re coming, we have a market and we will be able to sell work.”
Last year, of course, wasn’t the easiest for the galleries. Restrictions put in place to try to curb the spread of coronavirus saw them forced to temporarily close their doors and look at new ways of reaching clients. The measures, too, had an impact on travel and tourism but there is a sense of optimism among gallery owners that visitors will return.
“I think there’s something about strength in numbers with the amount of galleries,” Richard McTague says. “People can sample lots of different styles and see work from various periods and artists, and I think that adds another dimension to the town, a vibrancy and another reason to visit.
“The eyes of the world are on this region when it comes to art. Particularly in terms of sculpture, Yorkshire is the capital without doubt, with the Hepworth, Yorkshire Sculpture Park and the Henry Moore Institute. And when it comes to art, Harrogate, I think, has a unique appeal.”