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Celebrating a successful art business on the Yorkshire Wolds
Running an art business from an isolated farm house high on the Yorkshire Wolds might seem a challenge to some. But husband and wife team Robert and Victoria Fuller are celebrating 20 years of success at their gallery dedicated exclusively to Robert’s wildlife art.
This year I’m celebrating my 20th year of running an art business from my home at Fotherdale Farm in Thixendale. It is incredible to think how much has changed since my wife and I moved to this remote spot in 1998. When we arrived, the house, which is situated at the head of a deep valley on the Yorkshire Wolds, had been empty for eight years. It belonged to the Garrowby Estate and was owned by Lord Halifax. The garden had just been levelled by a JCB digger and next door were some dilapidated farm buildings leased by the farmer next door.
An art business in Yorkshire: Starting out
At the time we never really considered staying here very long. But no sooner had we moved in then we fell in love with Fotherdale. We loved its remote, wild location and spectacular views over the Wolds. Its isolation wasn’t ideal for an art gallery, but we poured our energy into making it work. My priority was to keep painting and so we turned one bedroom into a studio and made an old hayloft into a gallery.
In our spare time we tackled the garden. I had moved to Fotherdale from my family home at nearby Great Givendale, where the wildlife was abundant and I was surprised at how few birds there were here. We had just one pair of tree sparrows nesting in the roof space, some pied wagtails and a pair of wrens. My wife Victoria and I rolled up our sleeves and dug out ponds, linked by a stream, and planted 500 metres of native hedging around the boundary. We were so busy we didn’t buy a TV for the first nine months.
An art business in Yorkshire: Commissions
Back then I painted a lot of commissions of farm animals and pets. The Yorkshire Wolds is remote but there is a tight-knit farming community and my father, who was farm manager at Great Givendale, was well-known. Word quickly spread that I could paint and these commissions kept me going. If I was lucky I could earn enough from pet portraits to concentrate on painting wildlife.
I produced limited edition prints and greeting cards of my art work, which I sold by mail order. We kept the cardboard boxes for deliveries under the spare bed.
An art business in Yorkshire: First exhibition
The following June, I held my first exhibition here. We printed out 200 invitations and Victoria drove from door to door delivering each one by hand. She also framed each of my pictures, cutting the glass on the living room carpet.
We were so surprised when 1,200 people turned up! It was an open house event and we served drinks in the kitchen and hung my pictures throughout. It was so crowded there were children bouncing on the beds and people holding conversations over our laundry basket. My latest paintings were on display upstairs in the room designated as a gallery. The stairs were so steep we had to coax one old lady down again backwards!
An art business in Yorkshire: Building a gallery
We decided there and then that we needed more space and approached the farmer next door, the late Brian Megginson, to ask if he would consider giving up his lease on the buildings adjacent to the house. It was an inconvenience to him since it meant he would lose easy access to his fields, but he was very kind, and supportive of the business we were trying to establish, and agreed to the plan. Thankfully so did the Garrowby Estate.
We applied for a Rural Enterprise Grant to help with the renovations. The project involved converting a former milking parlour and fold yard into a gallery, studio, offices, packing and store rooms. We left the beams of the parlour exposed so that the new building told the story of its past and I spent days sanding and polishing rough planks of elm to use as countertops. We commissioned a local blacksmith to make the balustrade up to my studio, which was now in the former gallery.
The paint on the plinths that held my bronze sculptures was still tacky when my second exhibition opened in 2001. This time more than 2,500 people came. As we showed off our new art space, it was so nice to be able to offer disabled access and no longer worry about the stairs!
An art business in Yorkshire: Overcoming the remote location
Meanwhile my mail order business was growing. We bought our own printing equipment so that we could print our own limited editions and then took on an in-house framer to take over from Victoria. Running an art business in a remote location has its challenges, but we’ve always felt supported by our family, local community and farming neighbours.
In 2010 Yorkshire was gripped by a very severe winter and we were cut off for six weeks. Our boiler broke down leaving us with no heating and, worse, nobody could get to my Christmas exhibition.Thankfully the Megginson family, farming at Cot Nab on the top of nearby Garrowby hill, offered us the use of their farm-yard as a car park. Every day Victoria or I would drive up the hill in our 4×4 to pick up and drop off our staff.
Delivery lorries and collection vans couldn’t get to Fotherdale. I remember taking delivery of 7,500 envelopes on the side of the road in the middle of a raging blizzard.It was our busiest time of year, when people were ordering their Christmas cards and presents but, in spite of the challenges, we managed to get everything out.
An art business in Yorkshire: Expanding
By 2012 the business was running out of space again. We had taken on extra staff to help in the gallery and they were sharing our only computer on a desk that butted up to the printers. The noise made by the printers made it difficult to hear the phones. So in 2013 we expanded again, building a new office for the growing workforce and a bigger studio for me above it. By now, we had four members of staff, and a ‘cottage industry’ of two based in the nearby market town of Pocklington packing our greeting cards for us.
Outside, the work we had put into developing the garden was beginning to pay off. From the original pair of tree sparrows, there were now 35 breeding pairs at Fotherdale, as well as owls and kestrels feeding in the garden at night. I ran a project to protect and record barn owls populations across the region and was overjoyed when these beautiful owls nested here.
An art business in Yorkshire: Live Cams
In 2014 I installed surveillance cameras inside bird boxes so that I could watch the action up close. Essentially the cameras were to inform my paintings, but we decided to share TV screens relaying the images with our customers. These live cameras were a real hit with visitors and when a weasel moved into the garden my footage of it raising its kits inside its nest was the first of its kind.
Now I have screens throughout the gallery relaying images from more than 60 cameras hidden inside bird and animal nests and also showing the best of my wildlife clips.
An art business in Yorkshire: Diversifying
In 2015, like the farmers around me, I decided to ‘diversify’ and added art gifts featuring my paintings to my range. These included everyday ware from tea towels to fine bone China mugs and placemats.
It wasn’t until this year that we got a reliable broadband service at Fotherdale and at last our online sales took off. The gallery now hosts up to 12,000 visitors a year and employs 12 staff. It also serves 7,000 customers via mail order and supplies 500 independent shops around the country. In the run up to Christmas we send out up to 50 parcels a day to destinations across the globe. Of course this success has meant that I can now exclusively paint wildlife and although I do take on commissions, I am established enough to take ‘artistic’ control of my compositions.
Who could have thought that as a young artist just starting out, I could have turned the former farm at Fotherdale into a successful rural business?
An art business: exhibition celebrating 20 years
I’m holding an art exhibition to celebrate my 20th Year at Fotherdale Farm here at my gallery in Thixendale from Saturday Nov 10th to Sunday Dec 2nd. Paintings of the wildlife I have glimpsed here at Fotherdale will be on display alongside photographs and storyboards telling the story of how I persuaded them to pose in the garden for their portraits.
Author: Robert E Fuller