Border Lines

Berwick, North Northumberland: Food-Travel-Culture-Community

Archive for the tag “Belford”

Roll out the Burrell: Berwick’s community treasure chest

A new exhibition at the Granary Gallery showcases a fabulous town treasure – The Burrell Collection: a legacy always intended by its donor to be freely accessible to Berwick townsfolk. Berwick Visual Arts (BVA) and Berwick Museum wanted to do more than simply select artefacts for a one-off show. So, during the six months before it opened, volunteers explored and catalogued documents, oral histories were gathered, relationships and learning resources were developed with local schools, and a restoration programme began. This has enriched a delightful exhibition and fed into a wider programme of talks and school visits. James Lowther and Val Tobiass of BVA and Anne Moore of Berwick Museum hope it will begin to reconnect the town with this extraordinary gift.

Schoolchildren take inspiration from one of the newly framed Melville’s (Picture: Kimberley Powell, Berwick Advertiser)

When a community receives an arty bequest it can be a dilemma as well as a delight. In 1851 JMW Turner famously left a mass of his work to the nation, decreeing that his paintings ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sun rising through Vapour’ must be hung alongside two paintings by 17th-century master Claude. A complex juggling act followed, complicated by a legal challenge to Turner’s will. Ultimately the four paintings were hung together in the National Gallery (and still are). The bulk of Turner’s collection – including beauties such as ‘Norham Castle, Sunrise’ – was shunted around London until finally taking up residence in the new Tate Gallery in 1910.

About the time Turner’s bequest was being pass-the-parcelled around London, Berwick Naturalists’ Club founded Berwick Museum (1867). A bit later, in 1875 a slip of a Glaswegian lad started to work his way up the rungs of his family’s shipping firm. This Victorian boy would become Sir William Burrell of Hutton Castle (he moved there in 1927). Aged 18 he chose to buy a painting instead of a cricket bat (to his father’s disgust), and began a 60-year hobby-cum-investment habit of collecting art. In the 1940s, he gave a princely slice of the works he had amassed to the people of Berwick. At the heart of Burrell’s gift of some 50 paintings and 300 ornamental objects was a desire to “give the people [of Berwick] an interest in Art”.

it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library

Through today’s lens Burrell looks like a classic didactic Victorian: a control freak with a keen mind and sharp business eye – sometimes expressed in eccentricity and meanness. He liked to shut off the electricity at Hutton Castle at 10pm, plunging all residents and guests into darkness whether they were in bed or not. However, Berwick can be thankful that, whilst Burrell enjoyed being hands-on during the renovations (which he paid for) to Berwick Museum so it could house his gift, he did not impose the restrictions he placed on the massive collection given to Glasgow. That city took years to find a site that met Burrell’s criteria and the doors did not open on Pollok Park until 1983.

Sir William Burrell – very much a man of his time. Picture from The Glasgow Story

Meanwhile, people in Berwick stopped by the Library and Museum on Marygate (now Costa Coffee) and perused the works of Arthur Melville and Jacob Maris while waiting for the bus. One man remembers spending weekends in the Library while his parents worked. He had free access to the Museum above where, he recalls, the Burrell Collection “shared space with a collection of local artefacts: huge keys and locks, cannonballs from the battle of Halidon Hill, a statue of Jimmy Strength and other treasures… it came as a surprise and thrill to discover that I could experience works of great quality directly and freely in my local library. The works that remain most strongly in my memory are paintings by Joseph Crawhall and Eugene Boudin.”  Degas, Daubigny, Gericault and Muhrman also feature in Berwick’s Burrell hoard, plus exquisite ancient Roman and Venetian glass, Japanese Imari pottery and Ming porcelain.

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault

Vincent Lomenech in his Belford Studio reframing the prized Gericault. Picture Olivia Gill/Vincent Lomenech

An often neglected aspect of publicly owned collections is restoration, conservation, and preservation. Thanks to some Heritage Lottery Funding several works in the current exhibition have received TLC from local paper conserver and restorer, Vincent Lomenech. In his Belford studio, Vincent eased from their frames watercolours and pastels undisturbed for over 100 years in order to release them from damaging acidic board and adhesives. He healed and cleaned, remounting and reframing as necessary. Vincent is a master in a precise and fragile art – in the past he has restored pages from the 15th-century Gutenberg Bible, and is currently working on redeeming the original plans and drawings for Alnwick Gardens. Whilst working on the Burrell Collection, he found annotations in the artist’s hand on the back of a Maris, and a £45 price tag behind Melville’s ‘Cairo Bazaar’, “probably what Burrell paid for it”. Vincent’s wife, artist and illustrator Olivia Gill, remembers being inspired by the portraits in the Glasgow Burrell Collection as a 15-year-old and says she was “childishly excited at having Gericault’s ‘Wounded Cavalry Officer’ in the studio”.

BVA’s and Berwick Museum’s aim to rekindle community interest and present the Collection as a resource and attraction for a new generation echoes Burrell’s original desire. Hopefully the project will contribute to the on-going story of this important and extraordinary haul. As one local school teacher said in the visitors’ book: “A wonderful exhibition and workshop. Such a great resource for Berwick – we are very lucky!”

Berwick’s YHA: home of the Granary Gallery. Picture: Visit Berwick


  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at The Granary Gallery, Dewar’s Lane: Free entry, 11am-5pm Wed-Sun until May 4th 2015
  • Berwick’s Burrell Collection at Berwick Museum:
  • For more information about the Schools Programme, Digital Learning Resources, Mobile App visit:
  • To contribute to the oral history project: contact Val Tobiass at or telephone 01289 333 088.
  • Vincent Lomenech, Paper Conservation and Restoration and specialist Picture Framing:
  • Olivia Lomenech Gill, Artist, Illustrator, Printmaker:

This article was first published on 2nd April 2015 in The Berwick Advertiser

Stories abound in unique Belford museum, Northumberland

A man with trench foot rescued from a morgue and resuscitated by a disobedient nurse. A woman who extracted her teeth to make way for a wedding gift of a false set. A 16th-century highwaywoman. What do they all have in common?  The answer IS: Belford.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, tucked into two rooms and a corridor, is a treasure trove of information. Check out the visitors’ book and you’ll find entries saying, “Fascinating”, “Beautifully laid out”, “A model for other places to do the same”, “A wonderful little museum”.

Mike Fraser, one of my tweeting buddies, recently began extolling its virtues on Twitter. Intrigued, I met Mike at the newly established museum. We spent a happy time reading stories of Belford – like the day the suffragettes stopped off en route from Edinburgh to London. They received a warm welcome – unlike the jeering they endured in Berwick.

Mike, whose project on Sir William Beveridge led him to the museum, was so taken that he took on social media and marketing on its behalf. He says, “It’s unique in Northumberland. There’s no other village museum.”

But how do you create a museum from scratch? Fiona Renner-Thompson holds the key. Fiona was born nearby and can see the museum from the window of her quirky townhouse – the former stables of the Blue Bell Hotel. She is rather inspirational. She says things like, “Well you just get on with it, don’t you?” And, “It’s about little history, not just kings and queens.” And, “If we don’t record peoples’ stories they’ll be lost.”

Belford has had its ups and downs. In 1639 someone wrote, “In all the town not a loaf of bread, nor a quart of beer, nor a lock of hay, nor a peck of oats, and little shelter for horse or man.”  By 1763, with the advent of the post and the Blue Bell Hotel, it was “a neat post town having an exceedingly good inn.”

Recently Belford’s high street has struggled. And in 2008 Fiona conducted a grant-funded survey to find out what residents wanted to do about it. She included the question, “Do you think Belford should have its own tourist attraction?” 80% of respondents said “Yes.”  Fiona gathered old photographs and took new ones of buildings needing attention. She had an artist create an impression of what Belford could be like. It all came together in an exhibition in the empty bank.

“As a result,” Fiona says, “a couple of shop fronts were spruced up in heritage colours, people started planting flowers. And people began telling me their stories. That’s when it struck me that this could be the basis of our tourist attraction.”

Armed with a recorder, Fiona listened to peoples’ stories, took more photos, and gathered memorabilia. She uncovered tales of lost houses – from tiny cottages to piles such as Twizell House, demolished in 1969/70. A trunk of clothes under a friend’s bed turned out to be those of the wife of one of the richest industrialists on Tyneside.  Four themed exhibitions followed – one a year. “They weren’t just my exhibitions,” says Fiona. “You’d go along and find that someone had added a folder, or photo.”

The bank was sold and the exhibitions moved to the empty Spar shop. Retired teacher, Eric Gassner, now on the Belford Community Group, recalls the agriculture-themed exhibition, “They wrestled a plough down the high street and put it in the window. Brilliant!”  Others, such as historian, Jane Bowen, came on board.

When the shop was taken over, Fiona’s gaze turned to the Reading Room. Always intended as a community resource, it was closed and unused. Permission was given and, with grants from the Lottery Village SOS Fund, the AONB Fund (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty), and James Knott Trust, the Reading Room was spruced up and kitted out. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s the stories that make the museum. I wish I could tell you more – like the Old Year’s Eve when Eva Walker led Black Swan customers (including the village policeman) in a conga round the market place to get rid of them… Sadly, there’s not enough space. You’ll just have to visit.

Belford & District Hidden History Museum, the Reading Room, Market Place, Belford, NE70 7NE. Open daily 10am-4pm. Free entry.

(A version of this article was first published in the Berwick Advertiser)

Post Navigation