Melissa Todd: The art scene in Ramsgate and Thanet Open Studios

Mike Samson of York Street Gallery

If you were casting an Agatha Christie which demanded a seaside artist, you’d want him to look like Mike Samson. Rugged, handsome, bearded, twinkly, slightly windswept, twitching with enthusiasm.

Born and educated in Ramsgate, and now firmly ensconced at its artistic heart, he claims to feel the saltwater running through his veins. His first effort at painting was at Newington primary school, where he won first prize in an art competition. “I’ve still got the medal, too!” When he returned to the school to enrol his own children 20 years later, after a long spell in the army, a teacher asked how his painting was going. He hadn’t picked up a paintbrush for decades, but the headmaster ran an art club and insisted he join. Now that’s what you’d call a long-term commitment to a pupil’s talents. Mike began a new career in consequence, and seven years ago, when he opened the York street gallery, the whole of Ramsgate began to benefit from that teacher’s commitment.

I wanted to know why so much art seemed to happen in Ramsgate; he insisted that “the art’s always been here. Just everyone is talking about it now. Did you know Turner set more paintings in Ramsgate than he ever did in Margate?” I didn’t. Artists have always been attracted by Ramsgate’s beauty, and latterly, its property prices.  He’s adamant the artists were emphatically here before the Turner, in flocks, or whatever collective noun artists prefer. In the 1960s and 70s libraries were the only place to exhibit. When the Turner arrived the local artistic community was promised regular opportunities to show their work, to compensate for the closing of the library galleries. It hasn’t happened, despite protest and petitions. The arts council took full control and decided to exhibit anything else instead.

Partly in consequence of that Turner-based disappointment, Mike approached 15 arty chums and suggested they could exhibit in Ramsgate instead, at a not-for-profit gallery. Thus the York Street Gallery came into being, staffed by several other artists as well as Mike, so he can take time to go out on location and paint, without which, he says, he “gets fidgety”. He’s astonishingly prolific, often painting several watercolours a day, and says he loves the process – the joy of not knowing what will come out. “An hour before you got here, this was a blank piece of paper.” He turns his easel to show a delicate watercolour of a boat, the dawn sun striking the sea. Magic.

The council suggested he should set up in Margate where he’d be more likely to get grants. All the more reason, he decided, to set up in Ramsgate. That way he wouldn’t be beholden to anybody, and anyway, he believes you work harder if it’s your own money at stake. “Margate’s good at shouting about its art and artists. It’s a brasher scene. Ramsgate artists are more conservative, less shouty, more reserved. But Ramsgate rocks!”

Mike was hugely instrumental in creating the Open Studios project, the bi-annual event started in 2012, which sees artists opening up their studio spaces to the public. This means many artists welcome people into their own homes, where they can see art, buy art, and meet its creators.  This year there are 33 artists involved, jewellers, sculptors, painters, photographers, all of whom contribute to the minimal publicity costs incurred. It’s a splendid way to get your work and name more widely known.

One of the artists involved is James Bradford, originally from Margate, who moved to Ramsgate three years ago. He’s in the process of creating a gallery called Arch 20, above the bike shop down in the Military arches, and makes his living as an artist, taking commissions for boats and portraits, and creating 3D visuals; his passion is brutalism. He raves about the glorious period properties in Ramsgate. Go see his stuff. It’s breathtakingly good.

A few doors down is Suzy Curtis at the Something Fishy gallery, who creates all week and sells all weekend, chiefly ceramics, all of it nautical themed – mermaids, fish, shells. She’s been a full-time professional artist for six years, and moved down to Ramsgate from the North, attracted by Thanet’s beauty. She raves about the joy of having her own gallery, of being able to sell and promote her own creations.

As Mike tells me: Success is buried in the garden of failures, so you have to keep digging.

See artists at work in their studios all weekend, August 24-26. The details are here:

Read here: Artists prepare for the 2019 Thanet Open Studios