Stephen Walton is sitting in the restaurant of The Angel Hotel in Bury St Edmunds. He looks approvingly around him at the walls, more accurately at the pictures on the walls. He says that not only are the pictures good but they are hung well.
He points out that hanging pictures is an art in itself. If pictures are placed badly then colours, media or even the subject matter can clash and draw the viewer’s eye away from what you are supposed to be looking at.
When a collection is as diverse as the one on show inside The Angel’s dining room then it takes an expert to hang this much art and not have various pictures compete for attention.
Stephen says the trick is to let a picture breathe. Give it enough room, enough space on the wall, for it to make a statement without detracting from its neighbour.
The reason for his interest in the art on the walls is that he acquired the eclectic collection for hotelier Robert Gough. It’s a wonderful snapshot of art from the last four decades.
As with all his work, Stephen’s decisions as what to buy and what to promote are governed by his personal taste, developed through many years of loving art, visiting galleries and by talking to various artists and listening to what they had to say.
He has developed a fine eye, he trusts his own judgement, but he doesn’t always agree with the so-called cognoscenti. Gut-instinct plays a big part and it’s served him well over the years.
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Around the Angel restaurant Norman Parkinson photographs nestle alongside a page from Oz magazine. A large Connie Stubbs portrait of local character Jack Eli Knights stares across the room at a tiny publicity picture of Diana Rigg as Emma Peel in the cult TV series The Avengers, while on the wall facing the door is Richard Merkin’s large scale Homage to Nathaniel West. It commands our attention but doesn’t overpower its neighbours.
This is what Stephen means by the art of hanging pictures. It’s about more than seeing if the frames are straight.
“You can mix old and new. You can put posters next to watercolours, mixed media next to photographs. It’s a question of stepping back, taking your time and seeing what looks right. It’s about not being afraid of the quirky.
“We have a photographic contact sheet from Eve Arnold’s shoot on The Misfits sitting along a French oil painting by Claude Garnanjourd. It a question of putting it on the wall and seeing what works – and not being afraid to experiment.”
During the past 30 years Stephen has been an ever-present figure on the East Anglian arts scene.
He started off in the traditional manner as a stage manager at the Bury Theatre Royal, he moved to the Cambridge Arts Theatre, took an Arts Council administration course which saw him help to oversee the building of the Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich in the late 1970s, before teaming up with county dance advisor Scilla Dyke to create Suffolk Dance which has now become DanceEast.
He also championed the Royal Ballet’s Ballet For All scheme in the 1970s before returning to Bury to manage the Theatre Royal.
Then, having got itchy feet, he moved on to work with The Oxford Stage Company, Phoenix Theatre, Leicester and the Arts Theatre and Arts Cinema in Cambridge.
“But, during all that I had always had a love of art and slowly and surely that love has grown until I wanted to start producing my own shows.
“I wanted to find new artists, local artists and champion them.
“Suffolk and East Anglia has a host of talented artists, both young and not-so-young working away behind the hedgerows in small villages and towns, working away in studios in their homes and no-one really knows they are there. Suffolk has a gold mine of art and talent which really does deserve to be celebrated.”
It’s not surprising given his theatre and performing arts background that for Stephen every picture, every work of art has a story to tell. It’s the magic clash of story and visuals which so bewitched him as a young man and led him into the theatre.
Now that same intoxicating concoction is weaving its spell again leading him into the world of art.
Stephen Walton has closed down his former gallery in Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds, and has taken on a hire agreement with The Edmund Gallery attached to St Edmundsbury Cathedral. It’s a new space and it has the freshness that Stephen has been looking for to display his new crop of rising artists.
“The aim is to create a regional gallery but with a national reputation. At the moment I can’t decide whether it is best to be peripatetic; switching between Bury, Norwich, Cambridge, Ipswich... or settle in one place.
“At the moment I feel that it might be best to hire a space in different towns in order to get a feel for the whole region. But, who knows? I won’t know until I have tried. That’s the thing about what I do. It’s all about doing things that feel right.”
He rents the St Edmunds Gallery for 12 weeks and is looking to stage similar exhibition in other large regional towns.
His fascination with unknown East Anglian artists didn’t happen deliberately. “I sort of happened by accident. They are all artists who I happened to stumble across really at one event or another and I was really taken with their work and I felt that someone should start shouting about them.
“Suffolk has this rabbit warren of creative talent and we need to bring them to the surface.”
His first exhibition was a posthumous exhibition for artist Dick Lee which he hopes to tour round Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridge.
“But, there is a lot of energy around in Bury at the moment. As a town it’s really starting to come alive again. It’s a really exciting town to be a part of... the theatre, festival, the cathedral. The whole town has a vitality to it which makes it very attractive.”
Stephen’s next exhibition is by rising artist Simon Carter. He described Simon as someone who is central to his campaign to raise the profile of East Anglian artists.
“He’s a great guy, a wonderful painter and he’s really starting to make a name for himself. His next exhibition is all work which he’s completed on a trip to California. It’s a really unique view on an area we all think we know so well. His work strikes you like a breath of fresh air.
“I went to see the pictures about three weeks ago. As he got them out my right leg started tingling. They were so good I just couldn’t wait to see them up on the wall.
“He’d had them photographed but no matter how good the photographs are, there’s nothing like seeing a painting in front of you. You get the impact and the colours are so fresh, so powerful, so vibrant. It just makes you feel really excited.”
He believes in all the arts, magic is required to make a viewer of a picture or an audience at the theatre engage with the work in front of them.
“It’s a form of alchemy and it’s very rare for anyone to be able to articulate how that magic happens. It’s something which is almost lost in the moment. People shy away from analysing it too much for fear that the magic will be lost and we won’t be able to recreate it again.
“But, it’s true for all art forms, theatre, music, dance, certainly in the visual arts – it’s the moment you engage with your audience. The moment there is communication, the moment you view the picture or view the performance.
“Whether the art works is largely down to whether the alchemy works.
“There is a real fear among artists that if you over analyse a work of art you will lose the magic. You will be tempted to try and create another work that tries to conjure the same effect – and, of course, the fear is that the magic won’t be there. It won’t work.”
Stephen sees his role as a gallery owner to support the artist and encourage their development.
“Of course there is a balance between encouraging new work and being able to sell it. But, I am not one of those gallery owners who dictates to their artists: ‘Do some more like that last lot, I sold a load of those.’ The artist has done that, they’ve moved on and as an art lover myself, I want to see what they are going to do next.
“I don’t want to see them trapped in a rut, forever repeating themselves. It’s not good for them, it’s not good for their art and therefore it’s not good for me as a gallery owner.”
He thinks the wonderful thing about artists like Simon Carter they are incapable of repeating themselves.
“I have known him since he was a postman, painting in his spare time. He paints what he sees. Everyone is different. He can’t repeat himself. It’s not how he sees the world.”
Stephen moved from the theatre to fine art 25 years ago, when he became friends with Christopher Penny, a lecturer and artist who loved Suffolk landscapes, “and it was through him that I met the arty/ painty world and my love and fascination for it grew.
“After I left Cambridge I was going for interviews and I remember I came back from somewhere like Buxton and I had four children at various stages by that point from my eldest doing A levels to the youngest barely running around and I thought why do I want to move away from here? My family are settled, my friends are here? Why do I want to move to Derbyshire?
“Of course I didn’t. So it was very much a personal decision and it opened up a whole new life for me but one which had been bubbling away under the surface for a very long time.”
n On The Road – Paintings of California by Simon Carter is at the St Edmunds Gallery, next to St Edmundsbury Cathedral from May 8-26.