Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends
Six Percy Kelly Trails: Explore the West Cumbrian coast through the paintings and drawings of artist Percy Kelly. Compiled by Chris Wadsworth. £12
"I was glad I was weaned on this sad and crumbling area because it taught me a fact of life. Utopia is an undesirable place."
The artist Percy Kelly grew up in the deprived streets of Workington and then Harrington during the Depression of the 1930s.
In 1984, in one of his generous pictorial letters, he wrote of how "I wandered off on my own during weekdays. It was a scene of great activity - steam operated cranes, shunting engines, busy and noisy, the smell of tar and red lead associated smells characteristic of a busy harbour." The text is written across the water in a picture drawn from the quay looking back towards St Michael's church. A small black boat is tied up alongside the harbour wall.
Another painting shows a medley of beaked cranes stretching up into a stormy black sky, loading coal into railway wagons. A bright orange ship's funnel illuminates the bleakness.
Everywhere is devoid of people. A dark railway line curves beneath the heavy horizontal of a bridge. Curving high walls and fences counter the curves and telegraph poles and gas-lamps restrain the swirling movements.
There is poetry in these drab industrial wastelands. Washes and dark colours bring out a reluctant glow and, even without people, the streets are instinct with life.
The same is true of Maryport. The town from the harbour can appear as though built from children's building blocks, but the cluster and huddle of the buildings have a life of their own. A beautiful view in pastel mauves and blues and browns stretches across the roofs of the towards the harbour and the waters of the Irish Sea.
Kelly painted Parton in the 1960s. The curve of terraced houses and the sweep of the railway around the bay seemed part of a threatened world, waiting to be demolished. The old terraced houses, windowless, derelict, leant against each other for support, but Kelly's emerald greens and pale, slatey greys make them seem special places.
In Whitehaven, he was drawn to the harbour. A seven foot panorama shows the dark harbour walls as welcoming arms. The terraced houses and tall chimneys climb up the cliffs to the right. The harbour is empty. The dark town is still and silent beneath the sombre hills.
He follows the cliff path to St Bees and the solid cube of the Priory's tower. On the beach, alongside the breakwater, were large round rocks and pebbles as large and round as the sun in the sky.
Percy Kelly lived in Allonby between 1958 and 1970. He painted the bridge again and again. The red arch and white railings sweep in front of the yellow, pink, orange and blue cottages or the bridge is light brown as he looks out to the sea which is glimpsed beyond the cottages at the fishyards. The narrow streets and yards show cottages comfortably close together. Their interiors are cluttered and alive. Allonby is bright with colour.
Percy Kelly brought poetry to the streets of west Cumberland in the decades after the war. His life was deeply troubled by depression, but his paintings show how intensely he held on to the beauty which was to be found in this drab landscape.
Chris Wadsworth has created a pack of six booklets each illustrating a trail through Kelly's landscapes. A brief biographical and descriptive text supports a wide range of Percy Kelly's magical pictures.
It is as fine a record of West Cumberland fifty years ago as you could wish to find.
Six Percy Kelly Trails is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.