Close to the Ground

I would like to tell you about an exciting new art and heritage project at the Burton Art Gallery and Museum, in Bideford, near where I live in North Devon. It is produced by Flow Contemporary Arts in association with Claire Gulliver.

In about a month’s time, the project will culminate in an exhibition:  Bideford Black: The Next Generation, in which nine selected artists from across the country engage with Bideford’s unique local earth pigment, known as Bideford Black.

earth pigment, incl. Bideford Black, at Fremington Quay. Seen on Essential Nature walk.
A thin seam of Bideford Black, showing up at nearby Fremington Quay.

In the face of so much that is alienating and damaging in our general culture, this is a heartening project that recognises the value of continuity in human life, and the importance of the local.

Bideford Black (known locally as Biddiblack) is a rich black coal-based material, mined in Bideford until the late 60’s. It had a great many uses – including as a camouflage paint for tanks during WW2; in the shipbuilding industry (e.g. for drawing and planning the outline of ships on the floor); in mascara by Max Factor, and as an artists’ pigment.

biddiblack-close up hands corinne (1)
Film still © Liberty Smith

Strangely, this aspect of Bideford’s history was somewhat overlooked until an earlier phase of the project and a permanent display were set up at the Burton a year or so back. Here, members of the local community who had direct experience of the mining days were invited to share and record their memories, so the story of Biddiblack might be kept alive and passed on to future generations.

The Burton Art Gallery and Museum has continued to pursue this vision, and today I am very much looking forward to the opening of their exhibition: Bideford Black: The Next Generation on 3rd October 2015.

Reading a recent promotional post about the exhibition on the Bideford Black blog, I thought it well worth a quote:

“Bideford Black: The Next Generation is the outcome of a year of research and making, during which nine artists from across the UK pushed Bideford Black pigment to its physical limits and thought about what the material might mean today.

This eclectic exhibition represents the Next Generation of artists to use Bideford Black, and offers a 21st century response to a pigment that took millions of years to evolve. These new artworks are made using a myriad of materials – pastels, paper, film, scents, sounds and machines. What they share in common is that they all reflect upon, or are made with, Bideford Black pigment”.

One of the artists, film-maker Liberty Smith was commissioned to follow the artists during their year of research and development, and the resulting film will be part of the exhibition.

Here’s the trailer to give you a taster of this film and a sense of the variety and quality of the artists’ work.

The exhibition is sure to bring a new, vivid appreciation of Bideford Black, and restore it to its rightful place in the history of the town, as well as all those who were involved in its mining, its preparation and various uses, and its export. Importantly, it will highlight in an exciting way its continued use by artists today.

As I said, the exhibition opens on 3rd October. If you would like to keep up to date with news of the project and the exhibition, I think the best thing to do is to sign up for email updates on the Bideford Black blog: The Story of Bideford Black, which documents the entire project from beginning to end.

There is also a great deal of interesting information to be found on the internet about this strong, seductive, slightly sticky black pigment.


The artists involved are: Tabatha Andrews (Devon), ATOI (Cornwall), Luce Choules (Essex), Corinne Felgate (London), Neville and Joan Gabie (Gloucestershire) in collaboration with Dr. Ian Cook, Littlewhitehead (Lanarkshire), Lizzie Ridout (Cornwall), Sam Treadaway (Bristol) and Liberty Smith.

About throughstones

I am primarily a visual artist, living on the North Devon coast, a beautiful semi-rural area in South West England. I am interested in full engagement with 'place' and the eternal movement of life - particularly as it relates to what we call 'the natural environment'.
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3 Responses to Close to the Ground

  1. Have noticed many UK artists are interested in natural mineral pigments, while across the pond I seem to run into more artists who prefer pigments derived from the vegetable world. Have also been following Peter Ward and his “Expressions of an Intimate Ecology” blog and he has worked with Bideford Black quite a lot. Nice catching up with you again!


    • Interesting about the pigments! Yes, I know Pete. He lives fairly near me. I believe it was he who originally suggested the whole idea of a focus on Bideford Black. (Incidentally, I have taken a tip from you, and now wrap my water bottle in a plastic bag when I go out!)


      • I figured it had to be a small world regarding Bideford Black. The bagel bag has come in handy keeping the condensation and any water leakage from damaging my camera…plus it has come in handy to wrap up small delicate objects. Nice hearing from you!


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