Inspired by the Peak - painter Kathy MacMillan of High Peak Artists
PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 February 2016
Over 20 years ago several artists working in the High Peak decided to form a cooperative that would organise group exhibitions at venues in the area. One of those artists was Kathy MacMillan, a painter who has been a key committee member of the group throughout the years of its existence
The extent and variety of the work on show in Buxton’s ‘Gallery in the Gardens’ suggests that there are probably more professional artists and craftspeople working in the High Peak than in any other area of comparable size in the country. Over 40 exhibitors are represented in the permanent display, which is located in a large room in the Pavilion Gardens complex and showcases paintings, prints, photographs, ceramics, jewellery, textiles, woodcarvings and glassware.
Many of the landscape paintings and photographs on view depict the spectacular and varied scenery that provides so much of the inspiration for all this creativity. They celebrate the High Peak as a land of high moors and narrow gorges; dark gritstone edges and white limestone cliffs; bleak plateaux and lush valleys. Other pictures on display capture the character of the region’s stone-built villages, the grandeur of its stately homes and the elegance of buildings dating from the spa era. In addition, there are images that reflect the colourful variety of the region’s bird and animal life.
Over two decades have elapsed since several artists working in the High Peak decided to form a cooperative that would organise group exhibitions at various venues in the area. Three of the founder members were Angela Stansfield, who ran evening art classes at Chapel-en-le-Frith High School, David Woodrow, an artist who had a gallery and art shop in Buxton, and Kathy MacMillan, a painter who has been a key committee member of the group throughout the years of its existence.
When I asked Kathy to trace the growth of the cooperative over the last 20 years, she said: ‘Originally, our group was known as the High Peak Register, but was renamed High Peak Artists in 1998, by which time we had acquired a summer home in Buxton’s former Pump Room. In April 2009, we left the Pump Room, which we had found worryingly prone to damp, and moved to our all-year-round exhibition space in the Pavilion Gardens. We supplement our permanent exhibition there with changing displays of work by selected artists in the adjacent Art Café.’
Kathy was born in the farming hamlet of Glutton Bridge, located on the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Recalling her childhood enthusiasms, she said: ‘I always liked to draw as a child and I loved blending the colours of pencils and paints. Unfortunately, the death of my father when I was eight years old meant that it was not really possible for me to develop my talent by attending art college, because I was expected to get a job and earn some money as soon as I left school.’
In fact, soon after starting work in a bank, Kathy got married and left the small White Peak community where she was born and moved to the Dark Peak market town of Chapel-en-le-Frith. This is the place where she has lived ever since and where she and her husband brought up their two children. In 1983, she took up her hobby of sketching and painting once again, and began attending Angela Stanfield’s art classes. By 1995, she had built up sufficient skills and confidence to become a professional artist. Although her husband died suddenly in 1997, she was able to continue making a living from her art, and does so to this day, thanks to the enduring popularity of her pictures.
Describing her painting methods, Kathy said: ‘Just as I enjoyed mixing colours when I was a child, I love blending paints to come up with colours appropriate for each painting – I rarely stick to the same palette more than once. I also like using various media, because I adore the luminosity and immediacy of watercolours, the vibrant and emotive brush marks of oils and acrylics, and the expressive lines and subtle tones of pen and pencil drawings.’
Kathy usually uses watercolours when she is painting out of doors and working by direct observation, but she is more likely to use oils or acrylics when she is painting in her studio, where she enlists the help of photographs that she has taken early or late in the day when the shadows are at their longest. Although some of her paintings depict beauty spots in obvious locations favoured by artists, such as Scotland, the Lake District and Venice, and others capture scenes in Portugal, where she has led groups on painting holidays, the vast majority of her art is inspired by the landscapes and the towns and villages of the High Peak.
One of her paintings, entitled ‘A Peep into Derbyshire’, perfectly captures the bucolic view from Nab End, just over the border in Staffordshire, and features Parkhouse Hill and Chrome Hill, two shapely summits that dominate the part of the White Peak where she was born and brought up. She has also made a nostalgic return to the area to paint Glutton Cottage, the house where she lived as a child.
By way of contrast, a remote area of the Dark Peak is the inspiration for a painting called ‘Warm Skies over the Cat and Fiddle’, which depicts a winter scene in the vicinity of one of the highest inns in England. Stimulated by the sort of conditions that would have caught the artistic imagination of Turner, she has painted barren snow-covered moors illuminated by light shining from a brilliantly-coloured sky. Needless to say, Kathy chose this subject because she knew that it would provide an opportunity for her to mix her palette until exactly the right luminosity was achieved.
Buxton has provided many subjects for her paintings. ‘Last Light on the Slopes’ captures an unusual view of the Town Hall obtained from a steep, tree-lined path in the gardens known as the Slopes. A more familiar scene features the façade of the Buxton Opera House, which she has painted on a number of occasions, whether depicting a ‘Sunny Afternoon’ or an ‘Enchanted Evening’. As Kathy explained, ‘The Opera House is one of my favourite subjects because I love going to the theatre and I have even made some pictures that try to capture the magical atmosphere in the auditorium.’
Explaining why there is another subject to which she has returned time and again, Kathy said: ‘The steep, cobbled street of Church Brow is the most picturesque road in my home town of Chapel-en-le-Frith. Although the contours of the cottages never change, I can usually spot something new when I return to paint there. Some buildings might have been given a new coat of render, while others might have had the render removed. On a recent visit I noticed a new feature in the form of a stone lion on the garden wall of a cottage near the top of the street. My Church Brow pictures are particularly popular with the people who buy my work.’
As well as devoting most of her time to the creation of her own work, Kathy continues to support and serve on the committee of the artists’ co-operative that she helped to set up almost a quarter of a century ago, as does David Woodrow, who worked with her to establish the group. Like all the other members of High Peak Artists, she believes that the Gallery in the Gardens is the perfect showcase for bringing the work of the many artists and craftspeople who have been inspired by this beautiful area of the country to the attention of the public.
The Gallery in the Gardens, housed in Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens, is open from 9.30am to 5pm every day. Kathy MacMillan’s paintings and prints can also be viewed on www.kathymacmillan.co.uk and www.peakdistrictpaintings.co.uk (01298 813959), and her work will be on display from 8th March to 9th May in the Art Café in the Pavilion Gardens, where High Peak Artists mount exhibitions that are changed every two months and highlight the work of selected artists