Date Posted: 8th January 2023

Whitehaven panorama
Interior Sekers silk mill

QUESTION; WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE HAVE IN COMMON? A plasterer in Maryport; a man up a ladder in Hackney; a London commuter and two men called Ian in Dundee.

THE ANSWER lies in the exhibition at the Beacon.

It's 25 years since I last curated a Percy Kelly exhibition at the Beacon in Whitehaven.  It was the first exhibition in their new state of the art gallery so it is with a sense of nostalgia that I welcome Percy’s triumphant return.

Although PK was born in Workington and lived in Allonby for many years, he had very close connections with Whitehaven and surrounding villages particularly in the Sixties which was his most successful decade and one in which the area  around Whitehaven (recently known as Copeland) played a large part.  By 1960 he had overcome the deep depressions that followed his war service, had resigned from his job with Royal Mail and the sub post office in Great Broughton and moved to Allonby to become a full time artist.  With encouragement from collector and benefactor Helen Sutherland and Millom poet Norman Nicholson he fulfilled his burning ambition to go to art college on a 4 year NDD course aged 42.

His wife Audrey was outraged at this and complained loudly. To placate her he worked nights as a nurse at Dovenby hospital, painted pub signs, shop fronts and garage signs and wrote letters to west Cumbrian industrialists offering his services.  He tells Joan David in one of his painted letters. ‘I wrote to the steelworks, the docks, the mines and the silk mills to ask permission to do on the spot drawings. The steelworks and the docks refused permission but I received a much more  favourable response from the silk mills.‘

I found  out what had happened next a few years later in a letter to his college friend Rosanna. He told her that Sir Nicholas Sekers director of the silk mills had asked him to do three interior paintings of the mill.  I ended up doing fifteen he wrote and he purchased eleven but I never allowed him to see the original effort and a number of others. I remember walking out of the mill with Miki (Seker’s nickname) and he nudged me playfully and said ‘I bet you’ve kept the best Percy’ 

And he had! I bought them in 1993 from his son Brian who was intent on binning them and I put them away carefully. They are shown for the first time in this exhibition alongside what he called his ‘0riginal’ effort and others I saved from the bin.

BUT the thing that has nagged me all those years is WHAT HAPPENED TO THE ELEVEN commissioned by Sekers. I made extensive enquiries especially when the silk mills were demolished but made no progress at all  until last summer when 2 were brought to show me and more recently another 4  from a different source came to light.  You will see these and hear the stories behind them and other paintings of the Copeland area in the Beacon  exhibition. The full illustrated story is in the February issue of Cumbria Life Magazine which lands on the shelves about 20/21st January. How convenient is that? I will be at the Beacon every Saturday during the exhibition  between 1pm – 3.00.  to tell you more.

Miki Sekers was an influential and important figure in the art world at that time  - he was on the board of Glyndebourne, The Royal Opera House, The London Philarmonic Orchestra, and was the founder of Rosehill Theatre in Whitehaven which attracted top performers (Rostropovich, Dame Mira Hess, Joyce Grenfell, The Amadeus String Quartet to name only a few). Sekers offered Kelly an exhibition in the theatre foyer and invited him to all the performances and much coveted invitations to the after parties in Rosehill House which are legendary where he was introduced to the Queen Mother, Princess Margaret, Lord Snowdon,   Lord Eccles (Arts Minister under Macmillan), famous actors, musicians and many more important people. Sekers had all the right connections to promote Kelly’s talent to the most influential people in the arts. In 1968  Sekers arranged a Kelly exhibition in his showroom in Sloane Street London. Kelly’s work was now in serious demand. The Arts Council asked for two of his paintings for a travelling exhibition of industrial drawings and paintings to Europe and behind the iron curtain.  Cunard commissioned two paintings for the state rooms of  the QEII  for its launch in 1969 and Lady Fermoy, Princess Diana’s grandmother, offered him an exhibition in her titular gallery that same year. Percy Kelly now aged 50 with an NDD with honours from Carlisle College of  Art; with a queue of eager buyers; with gallery owners across the country pursuing him and a sponsor with all the right connections was on his way to success.  This was the peak of his career as an artist. People gathered at the opening of the exhibition at the Fermoy Gallery in 1969 desperate to buy his paintings but Kelly turned up late and refused to sell any.  He would only sell his etchings. Guests were angry and emotional. That marked the end of his rise to fame. Apart from a reluctant exhibition at Abbott Hall in 1976 to raise legal fees for a right of way dispute and a small exhibition in 1984 in a private house in Cumbria  to raise the alimony for his second divorce, no one would see his work again for 25 years. He died alone and in poverty in  Norfolk in  1993.

Since then he has had a large retrospective exhibition at Tullie House in Carlisle 17/18) attended by more than 12000 people, Two successful exhibitions in London’s Cork Street and many exhibitions at Castlegate House in Cockermouth and across Cumbria, and many books have been written about him.




You will find The Beacon on the quay at the South side of the harbour. It shines out like a lighthouse.

The exhibition is in The Dark and Light gallery from which you can enjoy a panoramic view of the harbour alongside Kelly’s paintings and drawings of the spectacular view.  

Open daily Tuesday – Sunday   10am – 4.30pm (closed Mondays)


WALKS AND TALKS Percy Kelly’s Whitehaven Sundays 11.30 am  – 1.30pm ( Tony Calvin)

BRINGING THE EXHIBITION TO LIFE   Tuesdays 1pm – 3.00pm (Tony Calvin)

                                                                       Saturdays 1pm – 3.00pm (Chris Wadsworth)

telephone 01946 592302 

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