Tony and Julia Bentley on avoiding boredom through slugs, science and sculpture

Warm lighting, exposed brick, and Tony’s carefully selected playlist make for a welcoming ‘living room’ experience which invites visitors at The Keep to find a place in their own home for even the most outrageous or unconventional piece. With both his gallery and his artistic creations Tony offers something a little different: he likes to surprise and it seems to be working.

Originally born in Darwen, Tony was raised in Langho with a view of the hill and worked as a graphic designer for 25 years. But then he decided it was time to make a living from his passion for art and open a gallery and shop in which to showcase his work. Together with the support and business brain of his wife Julia, Tony opened up The Keep at the foot of Clitheroe Castle in November 2016 and the duo’s new venture has been welcomed by both the town and its art community.


You’ve been a keen artist since childhood and so opening your own gallery was a long time coming. Did you have a strong vision of how you wanted it to be?

T: I think Clitheroe has a reputation for being quite traditional and I think we’ve deliberately tried to make ourselves a little different. With my background I’m massively influenced by everything going on in the world of graphics, so I think it was always going to be slightly different to the very traditional art gallery.

J: That’s what we always aimed for. We’ve always found that when we walk into galleries, some galleries, the more traditional ones, we’ve felt a bit intimidated. There’s no music, there are blank spaces and you don’t know what you’re supposed to be looking at. So this is purposely different. It’s got art in but it’s got music on which makes people feel comfortable. The art should be in people’s homes, not just in a gallery to look at.

T: We’re really trying to sell art in a slightly different way, in a more comfortable way. Big white walls can be intimidating.


You’ve sold your art online previously, but do you think that having a physical space for people to come and see your work is encouraging people engage with it?

T: That was one of the reasons we thought we really needed to get a physical shop. We had a website for some time but sculpture is such a tactile thing and people need to see it in the round and you do need a space to see that rather than going off pictures. People can come in here and it is making a difference, which is great. We knew that a gallery was always going to be a gamble, y’know, it’s nothing that’s a necessity, but hopefully we’re fitting a niche that others might not be.

J: We’ve found that with sculpture especially, people have said to us in the past, that it is very difficult to sell because people aren’t used to it being in their homes, they’re used to smaller ornaments. With bigger pieces, where do you put it in their house? We’ve actually been surprised at how well Tony’s sculpture has sold, it’s really taking off, people actually buying sculpture. I think it must be because they can see it, they can feel it, but they can also picture it in their own home. It seems to be working.


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson


Was this something you had hoped to do for a while?

T: We’d talked about having a place for 16 years, since we met. We got to the point where we thought if we don’t take the plunge now we’re never going to. So we did it a year ago exactly in November. We took a three-year lease on this place and just decided to go for it. It’s been absolutely brilliant.

Clitheroe seemed an obvious a place for an art shop, because of the tourism and it’s a lovely little market town. There are lots of independent shops around and it seemed ideal to be somewhere that isn’t just full of chains but where you’ve still got a high street. There is also a good network between the independents, we’ve had a lot of help from everybody, they’ve been so supportive.

J: I grew up in Barrow, so I’ve been here since I was a kid. I knew Clitheroe and I’ve always known people from Clitheroe. Everybody, including the landlady, have been so kind and supportive since we opened. Because there are so many independent businesses it’s not so anonymous as with other places. Everybody wants to help and be friendly. So yeah, we’re really enjoying it, it’s a really lovely town.


The support from the community sounds great but have you encountered many challenges opening the gallery in a small, rural town?

T: Not that I can think of, we’ve been very lucky.

J: I think the only thing I can actually complain about is that people seem to get done for parking all the time. People come in all the time and say they’ve just got a ticket.


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson

You mentioned earlier that your sculpture has proven popular, would you say that it was the sculpture what you most wanted to display and sell?

T: Yeah, the sculpture and then the photography are the two things that I really love doing. It’s been great to have the opportunity to just test things because I’ve got the space. I can produce what I want to produce and get an instant reaction from people, rather than having to submit it to a gallery who might not take it.

J: That’s where your heart is, isn’t it? You love everything else and trying different things but your heart is always with the stone.


Looking around The Keep I can see a range of styles in your sculpture. While some pieces represent familliar objects or creatures there are others which are much more abstract, how do you think you would describe your aesthetic?

T: To be honest, I’m like some weird kind of magpie and I think it’s because of the graphic design when I think about it. You’re so constantly immersed and bombarded with imagery that I don’t think I’ve particularly developed a distinct style. Maybe when you look at the sculpture you do see a certain thread running through whether it’s…

J: …often it’s crazy or a bit odd, a bit dark. *laughs* but sometimes you’ll do things like ‘Glacier’ which is very different. I’m often surprised by what he does.

T: I struggle to not get bored. If I did something along a similar route I would get bored of it, so I can’t really sit still with any one theme or any one aesthetic.


Are there particular themes which more likely to inspire you?

T: It can be anything, but I do find that it tends to be stuff that is veering off towards science. That’s something that has always fascinated and interested me and doesn’t often go hand in hand with art. With this one, ‘Glacier’, for example, the top lumpy kind of thing is actually from an image of a DNA scan with an electron microscope which creates this weird landscape looking thing. On ‘Alfie’, the tattooed torso, the tattoos are all from a guy who came up with the theory of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin, but because he was a poor Welshman he didn’t get the same level of recognition for it. So yeah, a lot of the stuff is influenced on some level by science.

Although the slug is out of pure guilt because of the amount I’ve disposed of in beer traps from my vegetable patch. It’s called ‘Unloved’ because when you start to study slugs up-close they are actually amazing creatures. I know they repulse people, but when you look at them in detail you do start to see that there’s beauty in even the ugliest things.


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson

You aim to be a little bit different in a town which has a reputation for being more traditional, how has that been received by locals?

T: It’s interesting, it’s a mix.

J: Some people don’t get it. They come in a don’t really understand why anybody would buy a bright green slug…

T: But then a local lady came in not so long ago and bought a bright pink one saying: ‘I like Pop art, so this is perfect’. Art is so subjective anyway. The people who get it really get it and the people who don’t don’t. But that’s far preferable to being somewhere in the middle. There’s nothing worse than being just alright. There’s a traditional feel to the Ribble Valley with a lot of people but there’s also a bit of a buzz at the moment.

J: People are ready for seeing different things and just having a bit of fun.

T: Some locals come in just to see what I’ve done next, even if they’ve no intention of spending a penny. It’s great, people bring their kids in just to see what we’ve got.

J: You hear a lot of people laughing in this shop.

T: Hopefully at a funny card though, not a sculpture!


Having this space gives you the opportunity to observe those reactions. How do you find that?

T: For me in particular it’s been brilliant to see the reaction of people, you don’t see that when you’re selling online. To most in the shop I’m just the bloke at the counter, they don’t necessarily know I’m the guy who’s done them, so I can listen and get an honest opinion from people, which is great. It’s been really encouraging, most people really do seem to like it – it’s been a great confidence boost.

I’ve been lucky enough to be shortlisted for Landscape photographer of the year. They’ve said they’ll announce it in autumn but I’m just over the moon to be shortlisted for that. We’re keeping fingers crossed.


Do those reactions, good or bad, influence your decisions when creating something new?

T: No, I really don’t. I very strongly feel that you should create for yourself. The minute you start creating because you think someone might want to buy it, it’s almost a rush to the bottom. To my mind you are creating for the wrong reasons, I might as well still be doing graphic design if I’m still doing that. If it becomes a purely functional thing it won’t be as interesting for you which means you’re not going to get your best work or feel passionate about what you’re doing. I think that could very quickly become very tiring if I was just churning stuff out purely because it sold.


To create for yourself sounds like an important way to stay enthusiastic about what you do. Is there a particular piece that you’re most proud of?

T: Generally it’s always the one I’m working on. People will say ‘can you do me one of those or one of those’, but once I’ve done something I tend to move onto the next thing and my enthusiasm has moved on. So hopefully it’s my latest piece, I guess it should be because if not then something has gone wrong.

I’m working on one at the moment that I’m keen on. Facebook set two computers up to talk to each other on a simple sorting task and they forgot to put in that they had to speak to each other in English and so the computers started talking to each other in their own language that we can’t understand. I found that absolutely fascinating. I like that concept so I’m doing a sculpture of two kids facing each other around the age that they’re starting to learn a language… it might be a little creepy.

J: My favourite’s always been ‘Alfie’ which is the torso. Tony only cast it once, then he hand-painted it and I just thought it was beautiful.

T: I do also like the slug. I’m so sick of seeing hares and cows, I wanted to do something that we don’t see a lot of.


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson

Your background is in graphic design, why did you pursue that rather than your own art initially?

T: I had an uncle, a close friend of my grandparents, and he was the closest thing we had to an artist in the family. He did watercolours. I had always drawn, I had always enjoyed art and stuff, and I actually wanted to go into doing art but he spoke to us, to my Mum and Dad, and talked me out of doing art for a living. His theory was if you do it for a living, it’s a very hard and it can take a lot of the joy out of it. He was actually an undertaker for a living, he made his money doing that and painted on the side. So instead I went into graphic design, which is obviously not a million miles away, but is commercial art really. I did a BTECH at Blackburn College and went straight into work, working for 25 years as a graphic designer.


Did you continue with your own art during that time?

T: I still always enjoyed doing the art and was doing that in the background. I started stone carving after a trip to the Barbara Hepworth Gardens in St Ives. I just absolutely fell in love with sculpture down there, so gave it a go. I read up on it, learnt what I could and just ploughed away from there really.

It was becoming clear that to get any further with it I needed to spend more time on it. I managed to get to four days a week at the graphic design company by working longer days so that they let me have Fridays off and I think that was probably the most productive time I had because I had a full day uninterrupted. I then thought, well the next logical step is to go freelance so that I’ve got more time hopefully to get on with it. It was brilliant being my own boss as a graphic designer. The downside was that when you’re working for yourself you don’t have that big chunk of time undisturbed, the minute I started carving the phone would ring. There were constant interruptions.


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson

From the decision to concentrate on your art came the decision to go into business with your wife Julia. How have you found it working together?

J: We’re a good team. We both have different strengths. I’m here and he’s at home working on all the art. We couldn’t do it without the other one. I couldn’t do it without Tony.

T: And vice versa. Not to mention the business brains. Julia’s background is finance and accounting.

J: I’d been doing his accounts for years anyway.


And now it’s a real family affair with Julia’s twin sister helping out…

J: Everything we do is a family affair! Our family are a very close bunch. Having Joanne in the gallery is very confusing though, it confuses people all the time. I’m pretty sure that some people don’t know that there are two of us, and there’s a point where you don’t want to tell people.


You’ve collaborated with the other local galleries to organise Artwalk Clitheroe, how did that come about?

T: There’s a close-knit community between the galleries in Clitheroe and we’d all said it would be great to do something together, so we decided that an artwalk would be a good way of doing it.

J: We could all be in competition but we’re not. I think it happens that we’re all very different. We tend to have a little bit of a party here on the day of the Artwalk. We have cocktails and cake and music. We’ve got friends who are singers and my brother’s a guitarist, so we get people we know who like performing. We also try and change it round, so Tony will produce new art for these events so people who come regularly will know that that is where you can see it first.


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson

Was that in response to a sense that Clitheroe has become more arty in recent years?

T: Initially we just wanted to do something with other galleries to promote art and themselves, but the feedback from the walks is that a lot of people have been amazed by how many art galleries there are and how much art is going on. There’s definitely something going on in the area, a push for culture and the arts.

J: The guy who bought ‘Alfie’, the tattooed man, was from Manchester and he actually came to Clitheroe just looking for art. He ended up buying the sculpture for his place in Manchester and hadn’t seen anything like it over there. He came on the day of the food festival and was amazed at how much is going on in Clitheroe.


And finally, what do you enjoy most about being an artist in the Pendle hill area?

T: I do a lot of landscape photography. I love being out in the countryside. I’m a country boy at heart, always have and always will be, so there’s nothing better than getting out on my own with the camera. Around Pendle and this area it’s absolutely stunning. Because it’s not as well-known as some other areas like the Lakes which have been shot a million times it’s brilliant from a photography point of view because you get to show places that not everybody knows. Pendle is such a landmark for us, I was always involved in musicals about it at school. Julia’s always running over Pendle and I’m always cycling over it, so it’s very much a part of our lives. It’s hard not to be inspired by the landscape… however wet it is.


© Evangeline Atkinson


© Evangeline Atkinson
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