Hidden Gems: Meet the Northamptonshire artist behind gallery at ‘breathtaking’ location

“It's like a little treasure trail around there”

This newspaper launched ‘Hidden Gems’ to support and raise the profile of venues across Northamptonshire.

In today’s coverage, we spoke to the founder of an art gallery that ensures small artists receive the recognition they have worked hard for and deserve – as plenty of artists have trouble finding a gallery to represent their art.

Robert Wallis, 63, has been running the Hayrack Gallery, based in the Old Dairy Farm Craft Centre in Upper Stowe, for almost 22 years.

The gallery offers a unique collection of arts, crafts, and gifts created by talented artists and craftspeople from all over the United Kingdom.

He said: “I always think of the gallery as selling nice things for ordinary people. There is a wide selection of things. It's a mixture of decorative and functional.

“It's interesting. Everyone who's here is a talented artist. It's all well made at a good value.”

Robert has worked in retail for more than 40 years, starting in 1984, and studied fine art painting in Leicester. The painter, born in Belper, has been travelling between Northamptonshire and Derbyshire, collecting items for the gallery.

Robert said: “We went to a craft fair in Milton Keynes and saw all these people making lovely things. So we thought maybe we could have a go at that.

“I eventually managed to marry my retail skills with my art skills, and I have this place.”

On June 7, 2002, the artist and his late wife, Cherry, opened the gallery in a little unit just across from where it is now located.

“This was really a tool shed with a soil floor. People had to walk all the way around to find the door, and they didn't.

“We had to have a concrete floor put in and knock through a wall to make another doorway so people could find us on both sides. That was the key to making this building work as a shop,” said Robert.

Cherry came up with an idea for the gallery's name when the husband and wife chose to preserve an original piece of a wooden hay rack that had previously been in the unit.

Six artists' works were first on display at the gallery; two of those, by Norfolk-based woodturner Dennis Hales and clockmaker Charles Waterfield, are still there.

“There were other galleries here, but nothing like this. It's changed quite a bit.

“What we try to do is get a group of individual businesses that are different from things you will find in lots of other places. So there's a reason to come all the way out here because we are a bit off-track. It's tough,” said Robert.

Currently featuring the work of more than 65 artists, the range of products at the gallery includes paintings, limited edition prints, photographs, contemporary glassware, ceramics, turned and sculptured wood, clocks, mirrors, and a large selection of handmade cards and unique gifts.

“I think the success is that I'm still here after 22 years. I'm not a millionaire by any means, and it is a struggle.

“Retail is hard at the moment. I try to offer something different at a sensible price because I know people don't have lots of money to spend,” said Robert.

To complement the arts and crafts, Robert introduced a range of vintage and collectable pieces of jewellery, scarves, handbags, and other objects.

“That's a new thing, the vintage craft. We've had arts and crafts since we started, but vintage is a very big thing now,” said Robert.

Robert currently manages the gallery by himself. He is accompanied by 19-year-old Bounty, the third and last cat of the Hayrack Gallery.

He plans to retire in three years. Robert said: “I think 25 years is long enough. I haven't painted for such a long time. I'd like to paint again.”

The owner is still looking for artists to work with. Robert intends to increase the vintage collectable items over the next 18 months.

The gallery is open from Tuesday to Sunday, between 10am and 4pm in the Old Dairy Farm Craft Centre.

The centre, owned by Helen Brodie, is housed in a complex of stone-built farm buildings with original features dating back to the 16th century.

“I always think of it as a bit like an open-air department store. We've got a nice mix of businesses,” said Robert.

The venue is in the company of a variety of craft shops and well-established businesses.

Talking about the Hayrack Gallery, Rachael Sutch, the owner of The Barn Cafe at the centre, said: “It's excellent. He's been here the longest. It's like a little treasure trail around there.”

Emma Trim, 50, who owns Magnolia Barn, another business at the centre, shared her views on the Hayrack Gallery and the centre. She said: “It's just breathtaking. Lots of people come here, and they're blown away by the place and the village it's nestled into. It's just a very nice part of Northamptonshire where people don't always think to come.”

The Hidden Gems campaign and Hayrack Gallery share the same message – we should not only be supporting our venues but also the people who continue to make them thriving places to visit.

This newspaper will raise the profile of some of the venues across Northamptonshire over the coming weeks and months.

If any businesses or venues would like to get involved with this campaign, email [email protected].