A town transformed by art

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Richard Wood’s ‘harbourside’ Holiday Homes

We went back to the old home town for the 60th birthday party of a young friend at the weekend. There were lots of reminders of why I love Folkestone. I was born and brought up in the town, went to school there, met and married Hattie there and cut my journalistic teeth on the local newspaper. Though we’ve returned many times since we haven’t actually lived in Folkestone for more than 30 years. It is full of good memories though, particularly of the local arts scene.  Inevitably I suppose most of the writers, artists, musicians and actors I used to know have moved on but great to find the old place still full of character and artistic energy.

It has undoubtedly been helped by the generosity of philanthropist businessman Roger De Haan who used the £1.3 billion he pocketed when he sold the Saga holiday empire 15 years ago to help regenerate the town as a cultural mecca. His bid to reinvent Folkestone as a ‘city of art’ got a little sideswiped by the credit crunch and ensuing age of austerity but he has still made enormous inroads into an area that was badly run-down.

A faded relic of a bygone age whose Edwardian splendour was given a near-fatal pasting by two World Wars and years of economic depression. It seemed Folkestone survived through character alone. It’s history of course dates back centuries beyond its Edwardian hey-day but that early 20th century era was when Folkestone was riding high as a fashionable resort.

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The Grand beaming Yoko Ono’s Peace message

In the early 1950s when I was born it was a patchwork of make-do-and-mend. Streets with bomb-sites and boarded up buildings, a community struggling to make good again. But prosperity was elusive. The Channel Tunnel promised much but eventually Folkestone ended up ‘underneath the arches’. Redevelopment plans had seen swathes of houses and businesses torn down in the town centre ready to cash in but the money and much of the development went to Ashford. Perhaps worse still for local residents Folkestone’s famous cross-Channel services were needed no more.

The town was in a very sorry state when Roger De Haan bought up and restored derelict and near derelict buildings, brought in artist as tenants and established a Creative Foundation to control rents and to encourage a culturally aware attitude that spread through the conurbation.

One of the Foundation’s masterstrokes has been the Folkestone Triennial. Staged every three years since 2008, it has inspired a new wave of creativity leaving a trail of artworks and installations in its wake. It’s heartwarming to walk around town, particularly on the clifftop and seafront and find wonderful quirks, thought-provoking visual statements and serious works of art.

Here are some of the works we encountered during our three day visit:

There was Antony Gormley’s cast-iron figure Another Time XVIII standing in an old loading bay beneath the town’s Harbour Arm staring towards the White Cliffs of Dover.

Patrick Tuttofuoco’s Folkestone sign created from lettering inspired or found on a journey from Istanbul to Folkestone via Paris retracing the classic rail route of the  Orient-Express.

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Tracey Emin’s ‘abandoned’ baby mitten

Tracey Emin’s baby’s mitten permanently abandoned on a fence on The Bayle opposite the site of my now long demolished office. A comment on rising numbers of teenage pregnancies.

Richard Woods colourful little ‘Holiday Homes’ sharing the harbour with the town’s fishing fleet.

Lubaina Himid’s Jelly Mould Pavilion standing on the site of the old Rotunda amusement arcade.

Bill Woodrow’s The Ledge. A modernist sculpture about the devastation threatened by the melting polar ice caps. How the human race is literally standing on thin ice.

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Weather is Third to Place & Time

Poet, writer and artist Ian Hamilton Finlay’s posthumous inscription on the Harbour Arm Lighthouse – ‘Weather is a Third to Place and Time’. It was originally designed to be viewed at a distance by telescope. Subsequent Harbour Arm renovations now  mean you can see it up-close as the base of the lighthouse is now a champagne and music bar.

Cornelia Parker’s Folkestone Mermaid sits overlooking the sands and harbour. Conceived as a reinterpretation of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid for the 2011 Triennial, Parker invited all the women of Folkestone to apply for the honour of modelling for the sculpture. Eventually thirtysomething mum of two, Georgina Baker, was chosen.

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Cornelia Parker’s Folkestone Mermaid

Yoko Ono’s Earth Peace message transmitted in Morse Code from a lantern high on The Grand, a magnificent old clifftop building, once an Edwardian Hotel and now full of elegant apartments.

Though perhaps most poignant of all is Mark Wallinger’s Folk Stones – a large square on the clifftop greensward that is The Leas containing precisely 19,240 individually numbered beach pebbles, each one representing  a British soldier killed on 1st July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme. 

The work which was part of the first Triennial in 2008 was inspired by the soldiers – more than a million – who marched past this exact location on their way to fight on the battlefields of France and Flanders. So many never returned.

There is much more of course and the Folkestone Triennial will return in 2020. So watch this space…

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre publicist and occasional art historian.

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