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If ever a man has his point proved beyond doubt then it is John Ruskin, whose 19th century theory is holding strong today in the Lune valley. The Lake District art critic and social reformer was one of the key political thinkers of his day and was appalled at the environmental devastation caused by the Industrial Revolution. What upset him most was the displacement of the 'common man' from villages and market towns into the urban back-to-backs, overshadowed by belching chimneys.

Ruskin believed everyone needed beauty in their lives. To live in beauty, he judged, charmed the character to higher thinking. He also believed it helped people to be nicer to one another.

The Lune valley is just the sort of place Ruskin had in mind. It covers an area from Lancaster to the fringes of the Yorkshire Dales and takes its name from the majestic River Lune. With hedgerowed lanes that wind down from sheep-grazed moors to picturesque villages such as High Bentham, Wray and Tatham, it is no surprise that the area has become home to a colony of artists, most of whom only discovered their talent after moving into Lunesdale.

Inspired by it's stunning landscape, they have banded together and are encouraging the sale of one another's work through a studio trail. The Lunesdale Studio Trail follows a 12-mile circular route and visits 15 artists, who work in a range of mediums from metal sculptures to wool-woven hanging tapestries.

The artists invariably live and work in idyllic surroundings. They are tucked away in hamlets, isolated barns on hillsides and converted schools in small villages. All feel very much at home in their rural environment. Sculpture, ceramics, textiles, photographs and mixed media work are on display together with prints, drawings and paintings, in a range of styles from traditional to experimental and abstract.

Several of the studios are set in gardens including a Regency topiary one and a delightful cottage garden with plants the artist uses for dyes. Another is featured in the prestigious 'Good garden guide'.

First time trail exhibitor Jane Routh is anticipating the arrival of guests to her photographic studio in Tatham. A fellow of the Royal photographic Society, Jane arrived in the Lune Valley via Birmingham, when she took a lecturing post in photography at Lancaster University. 'My art is now my livelihood, which is the same for most of the artists on the trail' she said. 'Many of us have come from the teaching profession. Jobs brought us originally to Lancaster, but we have gravitated towards Lunesdale for its lovely scenery and the quality of life that village living can offer.'

Another trail artist is former teacher David Hartnup. He moved into his Wray cottage 30 years ago and now spends most of his time drawing and painting in oils. David has been involved in the trail since its inception and last year welcomed almost 300 visitors to his home studio, having temporarily converted his adjoining dining room into a makeshift gallery.

He said: 'People who come on the trail may have bought work from either myself or another artist in the past. We are therefore supporting one another. Many of the visitors are quite local. They see our trail posters and advertisements and decide to make a day of it. The village locations of the artists are worth a stop in their own right. There are also some good pubs.'

David began his involvement in mapping the trail after being invited to exhibit at the Maiden Bridge Farm gallery of another painter, David Davies. A designer by profession, David Davies moved to the farm, high on the Tatham Fells, with wife Hannah, a textile artist, designer and weaver, and daughter Zunya, who inherited her parents' artistic bent.

Zunya worked as a fashion designer in Sweden and Hong Kong, before returning to the family homestead where she also now produces felt art pictures. David converted one of the farm's barns into a gallery. In inviting local artists to display their work there, he began to realise how many talented neighbours he had and the idea for the trail was born.

One of the most striking artistic contributions is made by Andy Kay whose large metal sculptures are sited in the landscape. One is four metres high.

'It is the most exciting piece I've made' he said. I want it to stop people in their tracks but still be finely made.' Adds Jane: 'The average distance between one artist to another is roughly one and a half miles. Given such a concentration, there must be something truly inspirational in our surroundings.'

I think Ruskin would agree.

Julie Frankland writes in September 2001 edition of "Lancashire Life & Lake District Life" If you would like to join in and experience the Lune Valley Artists' Trail, join us on one of our Gateway to the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales, Lakeland & Between tours.

This article is reproduced with the permission of "Lancashire Life & Lake District Life" magazine.
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