Helen Clapcott: where two rivers meet

While I’m on about painting Stockport’s viaduct, I must mention a local artist who has painted it repeatedly in recent years in wonderful paintings that record Stockport’s urban landscape, often with the Mersey snaking sinuously between the viaduct’s pillars, the mills, motorways and derelict sites of the town.

Her name is Helen Clapcott and, although born in Blackpool in 1952, it was moving to Stockport at the age of ten that ultimately became the inspiration for much of her work.  Like I did, she tracked the Mersey to its end to study in Liverpool in the sixties, taking Fine Arts at Liverpool Polytechnic.  After a spell in London, she returned to live in Macclesfield where she now paints works that depict the mutation and evolution of a once industrial valley, now a commuter corridor. In her paintings we can how Stockport has been dominated by ‘the three Rs’ – river, rail and road – and now boasts a motorway, a congestion of roundabouts, sliproads and a pyramid.  She is one of the few artists working in egg tempora, a traditional medium that mixes pigment and water with egg which was used by painters in the Renaissance.

This is Helen talking about how Stockport and the Mersey have been her inspiration (you can listen to her talk here):

My connections with Stockport, I moved here when I was ten with my family, in 1962 and spent sensitive adolescent years exploring the town and taking the train to Manchester, where I scraped just enough O Levels to get me to art school.  There’s a wonderful view of the valley, as the train travels across the viaduct. In the 70s you could see the river, inaccessible, walled by red brick edifices winding into the Cheshire plane. And the King Mill where the Pyramid now stands stood loud and grand in the centre of this landscape, with the sun chasing round the numerous chimneys, that was the view that inspired me to paint.

I was in my late teens when I saw that view on an almost daily basis and I think it just sank slowly in. Until the mid 70s when I came back to Stockport and began painting. It was the view of the chimneys and the sun chasing round the valley. The sun silhouetting the mills was just a very inspiring sight, especially in Autumn when that white light would chase across the grounds.

The river was always black. The river was inaccessible. The mills stood all along the river and you couldn’t get to the river. There is so little access to the river, the town planners seem to prefer to cover it up rather than use it as an asset. I think very many local people don’t even know the river exists.  Even though I grew up in Stockport and went to college in Liverpool, I never related the Mersey in Liverpool to the Mersey in Stockport. In Liverpool there was, at that time, ‘Ferry Across the Mersey’ and I was reading Helen Forrester’s Tuppence to Cross the Mersey. I couldn’t, I couldn’t possibly relate it back to Stockport. It was romantic in Liverpool, it was something that was hidden in Stockport.

Stockport has changed enormously in the time I’ve known it, I’ve seen the motorway built right through the middle of the town. I’ve seen the great mills demolished and the land used for car parks and department stores and the river covered over. The Mersey is now retired in Stockport.  But the river’s cleaner than it used to be and I can see creatures in the water as well as supermarket trolleys and tyres. Crayfish, look like lobsters, they’re quite big too.

It has given Stockport its names, Merseyway, Mersey Square and it’s written in the official handbook of 1966 that all roads lead to Mersey Square. So perhaps the river is there just to give name to its present, perhaps to remind us where it came from.  I don’t know if the river could be important to the town again. It would be lovely to see the Mersey brought into its, its own again. It would be lovely to see a natural feature in a more natural state.

The river is central to a lot of my paintings. The river structured the town and in my paintings the river structures my paintings. It’s a kind of white line that runs through the middle of each piece of work. I’m painting the Mersey because it is still there, you can still see it.   Surprisingly as the mills come down so one can get access to bits of the river that one couldn’t get access to previously. There is a walk along towards Brinksway that now has a wall where you can look over and see the river, that certainly wasn’t possible in the past.

The best view of the Mersey was from the top of the viaduct as the train went across. There was a train strike many years ago and that meant I was able to walk across the viaduct and take photographs of the Mersey. Some of my friends who enjoy photography would deliberately take the train back and forth across the viaduct just to take that shot. If you could do it again today, you would see an awful lot of road, you would see the motorway, you would see the river, really dominated by roads. Back then the river was framed by the mills and with the sun shining, reflecting the light, the river would look sparkling and bright, a white line running through the town.

It’s strange because the opposite applies now. It’s looks duller now but it’s cleaner.  I suppose my favourite spot on the river is on the West side by Brinksway Bridge which is a lovely stone bridge which stands next to the motorway slip road. It seems to crop up in a lot of paintings, though it’s very small. There’s a beautiful spot I’m painting at the moment which is in Tin Brook where the plane came down in 1967, which has a lovely stone culvert. Tin Brook runs underneath the stone culvert. It’s extremely attractive.

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