Drawn to pubs
Easily does it. Alastair Gilmour meets an artist who’s kicking up a bit of a pen and ink in Whitley Bay.
Regular visitors to the Quayside Sunday Market in Newcastle will have taken note of a stallholder – at times a frozen-to-death stallholder – selling his magnificently detailed images of the city, the North East and beyond.
In September 2022, however, professional artist Ben Holland took over an art gallery and studio in Whitley Bay where his work can be viewed at leisure, in the warmth and at virtually any time and day of the week.
Ben’s illustrative work has evolved over the years from purely black pen-and-ink linework which first brought him to people’s attention to the more recent introduction of slabs of beautiful colour which lend his work the air of an old-school travel poster.
Artist Ben Holland moved into his new Whitley Bay studio in September 2022
“It took me about six years to learn how,” he says, not entirely seriously. “I've now set a target to do a new subject every week. I still do the Quayside Market, even when it's freezing. It's been great for me; great marketing, and I never need to tell people about it. They come from all over, regulars and people coming out of neighbouring hotels – weekend trippers looking for a memento to take home with them. It's too big to drop now!”
He’s not entirely alone in his new premises, though. Colleague Scott Gatherar helps with the technical side of the business – printing, framing, packing – and also deputises for Ben at the Quayside when he needs a break.
Areas of colour help the black-and-white linework ‘sing’
Ben previously worked from a studio at the Mushroom Works alongside a diverse collection of professional creatives in the building east of Newcastle city centre, close to the renowned Ouseburn Valley. But during the Covid pandemic in 2020 it became easier for him to work in a shed at home with two very young children to look after while his wife’s demanding job took precedence.
“It suited me fine at first,” he says. “I was almost on first-name terms with the spiders. Then the Whitley Bay place came up so I rang Scott to come and have a look then we went for a coffee to help make up my mind. He said, ‘you’ve just got to do it, man’.
“People buy my work mainly because it means something to them – where couples first met, that sort of thing. But it can get a bit awkward at times. I got two requests just before one Valentine’s Day – a couple each wanting a picture of the Trent House pub without the other knowing. I eventually had to gently tell one of them. I didn’t want them to think I was refusing a sale, but I also didn’t want them to think, ‘what a git, he’s sold us two the same’.
“One of the first buildings I drew was the Tyneside Cinema and my first pub was the Crown Posada. People who buy the work tend to have an affinity with the place.”
Ben has long had Liverpool in his sights to cover as he believes the city shares a lot in common with Newcastle, its pubs and architecture, and York has a whole collection of similarly interesting places in just the one street. One such subject is the Ship & Mitre in Liverpool. “It's a great pub, one of my favourites,” he says.
Some of the gallery’s large range of artworks
Ben Holland spends a lot of time on the outside of pubs looking in, so if you see him loitering outside your local, chances are he’s about to draw it. He makes his meticulous black-and-white, pen-and-ink drawings simply because he loves pubs and all they stand for. Pubs aren’t just a subject matter, they represent entertainment, history, architecture and social structure, and every brick and detail on the finished artwork is as sound as the buildings themselves.
He says: “I try do find ordinary places to show them where ‘normal’ people go to, rather than dedicated art galleries, although I have exhibited at the Biscuit Factory in Newcastle and have a concession space at the Baltic in Gateshead.“I take a load of preparatory photographs and sketch them out two or three times in pencil and then ink them in. I work on ordinary cartridge paper and use Pilot Fineliners to draw with. That takes around 30 hours each as they’re architecturally faithful. I do a wash over the darker areas and detail every brick with all their definitions. Sometimes it can be frustrating but things have got much better since I introduced the colour.”
Curiously, he rarely puts people in his work. “I like pubs to have a life of their own and rarely put people in them. When you're walking around you should look up sometimes rather than keeping your eyes in front of you. You see so much detail that way – for example, there a lovely Art-Deco sundial on Milburn House in Newcastle, above Scott’s barbers – and the stained glass on the Crown Posada is beautiful.”
Ben draws wedding venues for couples use as invitation cards, such as Wylam Brewery, and also buildings like music shops which he’ll put individuals’ names on – a helpful sideline which the owners also love. “I like to build up relationships,” he says. “That way it means something to people rather than the Tyne bridges or the Angel of the North.”
It’s roughly ten miles from Newcastle Quayside to Whitley Bay – even on a Sunday – but Ben Holland has come a long way from his first sketchings of The Cluny and the Tyneside Cinema. And he’s still got a long way to go.
Ben Holland Art, 26 Park View, Whitley Bay, Tyne & Wear NE26 2TH.