Wingfield’s timeless moments

It’s a collection of restored medieval buildings in the middle of the Suffolk countryside. It hosts a state of the art, climate controlled, art gallery and concert venue ? yet it is one of Suffolk’s most glorious secrets.

Wingfield Barns is somewhere most people have heard of but, perhaps, not that many have visited.

Like so much of Suffolk, it is tucked away down a myriad of country lanes, half hidden behind trees and hedgerows, and yet manages to create some arts magic on a very limited budget.

Set back from the road, the venue exists in its own space and creates a feeling that, somehow, it exists out of time. If you are attending an event there hours can disappear without you realising.

The secret of its success is that, while it is very much connected with its rural community, it also casts an eye out to the wider Suffolk arts scene.

Its exhibitions, theatre performances and concerts invariably have that important local link but, on occasions, they invite high profile, national names to perform and they immediately endorse Wingfield’s work and its wonderful atmosphere.

Beverley Craven recently played a gig at the Barns, as did comedian Phil Jupitus, who then volunteered to become the venue’s patron.

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Interviewed at the time, Phil underlined the importance of rural areas having ready access to the arts. Wingfield is not only a venue for the immediate area but a focal point for arts and culture across north Suffolk. It provides a welcome reminder of the local talent we have working away on our doorsteps.

The current exhibitions are a case in point. Wingfield Barns are kicking off their year by hosting a stunning black and white photography exhibition featuring the work of the Suffolk Monochrome Group. This is complemented by a supporting collection from The Royal Photographic Society’s Creative Group.

As a lover of black and white photography, this exhibition demonstrates to me exactly what Wingfield is all about. It takes an area of the arts market that is under-served – photography has never enjoyed the exhibition space that fine art has commanded – and then sources a top flight exhibition from local artists.

The work in the exhibition is simply breath-taking and it leaves you wondering where these inspiring people have been hiding their talents for all these years.

The answer, of course, is that they have been quietly pursuing their craft, entering mixed exhibitions and club competitions and just refining their skills.

Speaking to Barry Freeman, of the Suffolk Monochrome Group, he explained that they are just a group of a dozen like-minded souls who get together to inspire and challenge each other. They share stories, swap techniques, critique each others work but essentially get together to share their love of monochrome photography.

He said: “We have been together for four or five years now. We formed the group because we felt that monochrome photography was suffering in the club world. We felt that there had been a dip in the quality of the work and so I spoke to equally keen people and set up a small group.”

He said that they deliberately set the standard high because they wanted to push and inspire one another. The results, as seen on the walls of the Wingfield Barns gallery, are certainly testament to the success of their plan.

The power of black and white photography comes from the fact that both viewer and artist are encouraged to put their own interpretations the scene before them.

You have to use your imagination when viewing a black and white picture while for a photographer there is more opportunity to apply some photo-magic in the dark room.

Black and white photography can embrace everything from gritty reality, the surreal or evocative romanticism. Although colour photography can also be used to create abstract shots or moody, atmospheric landscapes, it is harder to get away from the literal world.

The Suffolk Monochrome Group exhibition opens Wingfield Barns 2012 season which will not only feature a rolling programme of local artists but will also stage an event marking the 650th anniversary of founding of Wingfield College and Wingfield Church by the De la Pole family, the first Dukes of Suffolk.

Although now in private hands, Wingfield College was the original home of Wingfield Arts when it was first founded by Ian Chance in 1982.

At the time The Great Barn and stables were just semi-derelict outbuildings which Ian reclaimed as Wingfield Arts grew. It later changed its name to Wingfield Barns after Ian moved on to work with the Lee Miller archive.

In June Wingfield will be hosting a two-day event looking at the history of Wingfield College, the village and the colourful history of the De la Poles and their connections with The Black Prince, Mary Tudor and Henry VIII.

During the weekend results of archaeological surveys conducted over the last two years by the UEA will be made available to visitors and there will also be a concert in the medieval church including the Amici chamber choir and the unveiling of the restored Wingfield Tudor Organ.

But Wingfield is not just about the past. The highlight of the Wingfield year, in my eyes, is its outstanding Wingfield Arts Awards which is open to A level art students across Suffolk and Norfolk.

The standard of work is truly dazzling – particularly when you realise that these talented artists are also studying for two or three other demanding subjects at the same time.

It is not an exaggeration to say that our current sixth form students are displaying work that would not have been out of place in a degree show 20 or 30 years ago. This is a classic example of Wingfield providing young local artists with a springboard to a worthwhile career.

It’s about offering people opportunities. Wingfield’s general manager Lesley Jackson is never one to let the grass grow under her feet and has informed me that they are planning something special for local GCSE art students this year – so the awards continue to evolve.

The rural arts are so easy to dismiss or to overlook – particularly as the cultural world is so urban-centric. Wingfield Barns is a shining example of what can be achieved with plenty of inspiration and hard work.

Let’s turn it from a Suffolk secret into a thriving Suffolk gem in our arts landscape.