Date Posted: 13th April 2017

Rosehill reimagined
Part of Kelly's commision for Seker's silk mill

Last Monday I approached the ‘reimagining’ of Rosehill Theatre, Whitehaven with a degree of trepidation.  This beautiful gem of a place , opened in 1959, was originally imagined by Sir Nicholas Sekers, an Hungarian émigré who came to Whitehaven in 1937, opened a textile mill and spent the war making parachute silk on a government contract  He was a charismatic man – a man of vision whose interest lay in arts and culture. He was on the board of Glyndebourne and Covent Garden and had a compelling ambition to bring culture to West Cumbria.  He built the theatre in a large barn in the grounds of his home – Rosehill House – on a hill overlooking the Irish Sea just north of Whitehaven. Designed by Oliver Messel it was a tiny gem. The walls were lined with red silk and the red plush seats  and other items were reclaimed from the Whitehaven Music Hall which had recently closed.  Despite its small scale (it seats little more than 100) Sekers had the ability to attract performers of the highest quality; Peggy Ashcroft, Bernard Miles, Myra Hess, Paul Tortelier, John Betjeman, Joyce Grenfell, Rostropovich, the Amadeus string quartet were among an impressive list of those willing and eager to travel up to Whitehaven and perform in this tiny jewel of a theatre for a small fee for the pleasure of the hospitality Sekers offered at Rosehill House. His dinner parties are legendary. It was often referred to as The Glyndbourne of the North. This was an astonishing achievement and earned him his knighthood.
Rosehill was a centre of excellence for many years. It was the launch pad for Percy Kelly -where his career in art began and it could have taken him anywhere, who knows, if he hadn’t pressed the self-destruct button that led to nothing but poverty and isolation.
He came to the notice of Nicholas ‘Miki’ Sekers in the sixties when he was wondering what the future held for him when his 4 year course at Carlisle College of Art came to an end. He decided to approach leaders of industry along the West Coast for commissions as he was interested in industrial drawings and paintings. Sekers passed him on to Bill Hamilton, his Head of Design and asked him to get rid of Kelly thinking he was a painter and decorator. Bill dutifully went out to see Percy who was in the Mill car park with the rear doors of his van open making a sketch. Bill caight a glimpse of a painting of Whitehaven inside and was immediately hooked (just as many of us have been). He was so excited, he offered Kelly an exhibition in his house and invited Sekers who immediately gave him a commission for a series of paintings of the silk mill and became his first patron - an extremely well connected patron. He was a collector of the very best and chose one of Kelly’s paintings to hang in his office next to a Picasso and a Braque where it held its own and was greatly admired.
Sekers gave him his first ever public exhibition in the foyer area of the theatre followed by another in his Sloane Street Showroom, secured him a commission for the state rooms of the QE2 for its launch (I wonder what happened to those ), introduced him to leading performers of the day as well as Royalty (Princess Margaret and her husband Armstrong Jones acquired a painting there). Percy and his wife Audrey became regular invitees to the lavish dinner parties at Rosehill House where he met the Queen Mother.  His work was included in a touring exhibition showing the best of British design. Lady Fermoy gave him an exhibition at her gallery in Kings Lynn In 1969 where he dined with Princess Diana’s father. With the world at his feet, he decided he would never have another exhibition. It was too stressful. He felt exposed. His dog had died soon after the Kings Lynn exhibition; his marriage broke up and his patron Sir Nicholas Seckers died. (but not before he had introduced him to Robin Bagot of Levens Hall near Kendal who offered him and his new wife a cottage on his estate). The rest is history.
Rosehill was not just important to Kelly, it was and is important to us all. I need not have worried last Monday. The new Rosehill has pulled off one of the best (and possibly one of the most problematic) renovations I have seen). The original Messel- designed theatre is intact embedded comfortably in new sleek surroundings – it is a ruby set among diamonds. Local industries and charities were generous as well as Arts Counci England to finance this radical modernisation to bring it up to today’s standards and needs. The sea view from the new restaurant is magnificent.  Prince Charles seemed happy with the building on Monday despite his known dislike of modern architecture and rightly so – this is no carbuncle. It is once again an asset for West Cumbria. I can’t wait to see what it is going to offer in its coming programme.