Bils & Rye is a recently founded contemporary gallery in Nunnington, North Yorkshire. Last weekend we spoke to Nick Bentley, co-owner of the gallery, to gain an insight into this art space.
Four Michael Thacker sculptures are visible through a window on approach (below): they glisten in the natural light, their golden centres contrasting with smoothly polished stone. Nick explained that Thacker is a stone carver and mason at Lincoln Cathedral, and that in his spare time he creates sculptural pieces, exploring his affinity with stone. Michael’s work is incredibly tactile and highly finished. A work entitled ‘Altered’ was created from Tadcaster Limestone, the same stone used to create the Minster in York.
The gallery encourages visitors to feel at home and to engage with the space and its contents; Nick’s first words to visitors were: “Feel free to pick anything up. Would you like a cup of tea?” This is exemplary of Bils & Rye’s approach: they wish for the gallery to be homely and accessible, moving away from the potentially sterile contemporary art spaces frequently found in cities, with no hard-sale tactics. The gallery takes the individual buyer into account, ensuring that they consider whether they like the artwork, whether it will fit with the aesthetics of their home, and whether they can afford it. Nick mentioned the way in which approaching an art gallery can be intimidating, peering through the windows and not daring to enter. Bils & Rye are proud to be different in this respect, welcoming anyone inside. As one walks around, there isn’t a sense of fear of knocking something over; the gallery is curated in a way that allows for movement and relaxation; browsing is encouraged.
Tactility is important: the gallery showcases a wide variety of ceramics and sculpture, and the space lends itself to these objects, which are placed within home furnishings and wooden crates that contribute to the gallery’s comfy and unpretentious atmosphere. Nunnington is a small and picturesque village situated over thirty minutes away from York city centre; Kate and Nick have ensured that the gallery relates to this location in its appearance, with worn boarded floors that encourage anyone to come in and browse, walking boots and all.
Nick explained that the couple purposefully selected vibrant paint colours for the walls in order to make this into a comfortable and approachable space. The gallery has almost become an extension of the couple’s home; the works on display complement and pleasantly contrast with one another. The curation encourages us to imagine what the artworks would look like in our own home. Nick stated that for him, curating is not too far removed from interior design, and that the gallery does not display a lot of “ugly” art, purposefully selling things that are not alienating to the buying public.
The gallery was created on an initial budget of £2,000, which is hard to picture as one walks through a series of four rooms, attesting to the rapid expansion and evolution of this gallery, which only opened in February 2013. Nick explained that the business began within one room at Nunnington Studios; the room that now contains a real fire and a sweet ‘gallery dog’ who sits on his bed next to the sofa. This room is the cosiest of all, containing ceramic pieces by artists including Katharina Klug, who is a Cambridge-based potter and member of the progressive ‘Hot House 5’ group. A fascinating video by R&A Collaborations can be found on the gallery website, which allows us to gain an insight into her making processes and ethos.
“Everyone who has one of my pots has a moment
of my time captured in a fired piece”
– Katharina Klug
The gallery began with a primary focus on ceramics, one of Kate and Nick’s passions, which is highlighted by the diverse array of ceramic work displayed within these rooms today. There are paintings and drawings on display, predominantly in the third and fourth rooms, which currently contain work by artists including Steve Slimm and Carne Griffiths. The space has hosted a large array of work by over one hundred artists, and works are frequently cycled in and out, ensuring that the gallery regularly appears changed and fresh for visitors, making use of the amount of space now available. Parts of the building used to be a cow shed; old beams still exist, adding to the gallery’s authentic appearance. Light is crucial, particularly for ceramics; it is important for us to be able to see the subtle textures and shadows.
This gallery does not prioritise displaying the work of local artists. Nick explained that for the couple, it is quality and uniqueness rather than locality that is essential; work that fits with the gallery’s aesthetics. Yorkshire is well-catered for in terms of local artists’ work, and as a new gallery, they aim to bring something new in from outside, with no boundaries. They source work from all across the UK, and are already one of the most prolific providers of ceramics in the North. Yorkshire has a strong art gallery community, and Bils & Rye ensure that their art space stands out in terms of its content.
Nick feels that many galleries play it too safe, opting for landscapes and seascapes which have saturated the art market of this region. Bils & Rye take risks with what is displayed, remaining conscious of the changing art market within Yorkshire; unafraid to curate exhibitions containing figurative work. Nick observed that this presents a challenge in terms of sales, but that nowadays it is necessary to present the buyer with something different, and that often the things that he and Kate feel will be hard to sell often become their best sellers. The gallery maintains a certain style; there is no feeling of awkward transition between the four rooms; they are dispersed in a harmonious way that is intuitive to the space and the concerns of the gallery as a whole; nothing appears out of place.
When asked how important it is to have renowned and popular artists’ work within the gallery, Nick emphasised that Bils & Rye aim to set new trends, striving to expose Yorkshire to new work; he finds artists’ CVs fairly unimportant compared to seeing work in the flesh. Nick explored the idea that buying art is essentially a frivolous act, and that galleries sell things that people do not necessarily need, but that art enriches life and has a certain longevity.
The couple have learnt a great deal in a short time about the processes and challenges of running an art gallery; lessons include the necessity of a refined marketing plan, while looking at your gallery from a distance in order to be open to change and progression. Word-of-mouth referrals and a strong relationship with the artists are crucial aspects to success, ensuring that the artist always gets more out of the deal than the gallery does. Social media is also important.
Kate is an artist herself and this has pushed Nick’s passion for art further. He is interested in art’s poignant ability: that one can collect pieces throughout life that come to denote key moments. He hates not buying a work of art when he loves it, and points out that our individuality as a race is exemplified by our tendency to have differing tastes, with no right or wrong when it comes to art.
The couple are highly aware that as a gallery they have to keep moving; everything has to evolve; this is why they are keen to select artists whose work shows an element of progress. Just as the gallery space has evolved from being housed in one room to works being dispersed within four, it is necessary for artists to map their evolution through displaying a constant fingerprint while furthering their work’s refinement and unique edge. Nick gestures towards the Hothouse group, whose work demonstrates a clear development that appeals to customers and collectors, who are keen on work that displays consistency and an evolutionary trajectory simultaneously.
Personal highlights during the visit included bronze sculptural work by Philip Hearsey, figurative female sculptures by Ann Goodfellow (above), and a preview of Steve Slimm paintings (below) which will be exhibited at the gallery in April, all of which will be featured in the Journal within the next few months in further detail. Bils & Rye allow for private viewings before exhibition openings, which can be booked in advance. Further information about the gallery and the artworks featured in the photographs within this article can be found on Bils & Rye’s website. For regular updates, visit their Twitter and Facebook pages.
The gallery is an exciting and innovative space in its prioritisation of ceramics. It is unique in its warm curatorial style; the passion of its owners shines through the moment you enter the space. The gallery offers Yorkshire something fresh, displaying work by artists from across the country. Bils & Rye is hardly a year old and it will be fascinating to witness its development in years to come.
Many thanks to Nick Bentley for his time and care in showing us around the gallery for Yorkshire Art Journal’s first gallery feature.
Katherine April Caddy, 26th March 2014.
All photography by Benjamin Selby.