Friday, 21 November 2008

Friday Interview - James and Maggie Weaver of the ArtCafé, West Mersea and Colchester

The subjects of today's Friday Interview are James and Maggie Weaver, proprietors of two local ArtCafés - one on Mersea, the other in Colchester.

I visited the West Mersea ArtCafé earlier today, in order to chat to James and Maggie about their passion for food, art and coffee, while Jonathan took many of the pictures which appear below. And then I made the most of the opportunity to sink into a squishy sofa and drink a latte, while reading the morning's papers and enjoying the artwork on display: a very pleasant way to occupy a Friday morning!

* James and Maggie, the ArtCafés have such a lovely ambiance – which was your principal inspiration when you started out, the art or the coffee?

J&M: When we set up the first ArtCafé we really just wanted to work together, you could say our principal inspiration was combining what we are both interested in (art and food), into one business. To be honest, we also got fed up with James having to stop painting to drive the ten miles to Colchester just to get a decent cappuccino. As for the lovely ambiance, we think it’s probably the result of us enjoying what we do here.

* You have two choice locations – just opposite the Parish Church in West Mersea and in Colchester’s Trinity Square – was this sheer chance or did you have to wait ages for exactly the right premises to become available?

J&M: Our first location at Mersea was a real piece of good fortune, but we’d had our eye on the Colchester premises in Trinity Street for a few years. The café/gallery came about as the result of a chance meeting, at an exhibition of James’s paintings, with Simon Butcher and Annette Bell, in which we’d discussed our idea to find a waterfront studio/gallery. Briggs Art and Bookshop (as it was called at the time) became available and so we decided to put our search for a waterfront location for a gallery on the back burner and put all our energy into this new venture. We’ve been delighted with the success of this first business and it’s reassuring to us that people like our real homemade food and original art formula.

After four years we felt brave enough to take on the Trinity Street premises in the centre of Colchester when it became available, having been an antiques business for some twenty years. We laboured for three really cold winter months on this ancient building to make it ours and at Easter 2007 we opened the second ArtCafé.

* You seem to be constantly busy, serving breakfasts from 9.00 in the morning, then lunches, and then teas until 5.00pm, seven days a week.

J&M: Yes, constantly busy, that’s us! We’re open seven days a week in West Mersea and six days a week in Colchester, doing breakfast 9-11am, lunch 11am-3pm, and afternoon teas 3-5pm.

* Maggie, has cooking has been a lifelong passion?

M: I have been in the catering/hospitality business for thirty years now, starting out in North Cornwall ant the age of 21, with no previous experience or training. I worked with my sister in the hotel we had bought, figuring that, even with no experience, we had to be able to do better than the offered menu of tinned ravioli on toast amongst other ‘delights’ … it was a very steep and at times disastrous learning curve. It was called ‘The Trebarwith Strand Hotel’ and, with our restaurant ‘The House on the Strand’, was after a few years a very successful business.

Upon moving to Essex, I was chef at The Whalebone in Fingringhoe for seven years where, with my boss and friend Viv Steed, we created a great and popular place to eat. Now with the ArtCafés I’ve discovered that my passion is giving people real, not ‘mass-produced’, food in a relaxed atmosphere’ - definitely café not ‘caff’ but not quite a restaurant … yet!

* What are the top favourite items on your current menu?

M: My favourite thing on the menu at the moment is Toasted Chili Bread, spicy and delicious and so very simple.

J: My favourite is Liver and Bacon on Crispy Bubble and Squeak with a Rich Gravy and Seasonal Vegetables.

J&M: As for our customers, our Fry-Up is a perennial favourite, with local butcher Arthur Cock’s sausage, free-range egg, bacon, bubble and squeak, mushrooms and tomato.

We do our best to use local suppliers wherever possible and really do make almost everything on the menu ourselves.

* Are your famously delicious cakes baked to secret recipes or are you prepared to share one of them with us here?

M: When asked this question by customers, as we often are for our recipes, we’re usually guarded and will reply 'if we tell you we’ll have to shoot you!'. However, we’d like to share just one with Musings readers. So, here is Maggie’s Victoria Sponge Recipe:

This is the easiest recipe ever, and makes either one stonking great sponge or, if you split each layer, it makes two.

Grease two 9-inch, deep-ish round tins

Oven 180C / G4 10oz Butter (softened)

10oz Caster sugar
10oz Self-raising flour
2 tsp Baking powder
5 Eggs
1 tsp Vanilla essence

1. Put all the ingredients in a bowl together and, using an electric mixer, beat the living daylights out of it until it is nice and loose.
2. Divide between the two tins.
3. Pop into the oven for about 35-40 minutes.

4. Do not open the oven (even for a peek) during this time or it will sink.
5. Fill with whipped double cream and strawberry jam.

* Tell us about some of the artists whose work is featured in the ArtCafés at the moment

J: We have lots of interesting artists exhibiting worth a mention here, most are local to us, but not all. We have quite a stock of lovely etchings by Elizabeth Morris, a fellow Mersea artist and printmaker, whose work beautifully reflects the environments of both Mersea Island and Heir Island in West Cork.

We have another Mersea artist, Audrey Davy, whose atmospheric pastel seascapes, saltmarsh, and east coast sailing boats paintings are proving very popular.

There’s David Britton’s oil paintings too,

and prints and cards by Leafy Dumas, two more artists who live and work on the island.

There’s myself of course!

And from farther afield we have some etchings and woodcuts by Anita Klein, whose work is now becoming very collectible indeed,

and Melanie Wickham from Bristol, whose lino-cut prints and designs made us both smile the moment we saw them.

* But it’s not only paintings that you sell, is it?

J: From the outset we wanted to sell a wide variety of work with a strong emphasis on the hand made and local. This currently includes jewellery, glass, ceramics, driftwood sculpture and some photography as well as painting, of course.

Pru Green, a Wivenhoe ceramicist has her colourful and sought-after pots, mugs, cups, bowls and jugs on sale with us.

Julie Pettitt from Colchester designs and makes quirky and unique pieces in porcelain.

In addition, we stock a wide range of greetings cards and quite a few local interest books.

Those worthy of special mention are the range we have from Jardine Press in Wivenhoe.

I also have to plug my Mum’s book here - From When I Can Remember, her memoir of growing up on Mersea Island.

Something we’d really like to do in the future at the ArtCafé is hold exhibitions highlighting the work of just one or two artists at a time, with a preview evening with all the trimmings.

Ever since we first opened our doors, we’ve wanted to showcase artists who both live and work on Mersea Island (in fact we think there’s potential to start some sort of guild or group around this idea).

Another strand we’ve begun to work on is an online gallery/shop as part of our website, where a lot of the work we exhibit will soon be available to view and purchase online.

* And of course, as you've mentioned, you are an artist in your own right, James. How long have you been painting?

J: I’ve loved painting and drawing since childhood and after leaving school I went to the Colchester School of Art for four years. I actually studied graphic design and not painting, gaining membership to the (then) Society of Industrial Artists and Designers, and I worked in graphic design for about ten years.

When we moved back to Essex, I decided to paint seriously full time, supplementing this with other part-time work which afforded me the time to experiment and develop. Our children were small then and I had no studio, so after breakfast and the ‘school run’, I’d clear the breakfast things and the kitchen table became my studio until home time.

* Beach huts seem to be a recurring theme!

J: I had no idea at the outset that I’d be using beach huts as a subject for so much of my work. I was drawing and painting a lot of the boats and saltmarsh around our island at the time and the beach and beach huts (of which we have hundreds) increasingly began to fascinate me.

These modest pieces of seaside architecture are so very colourful and quintessentially British, and from the waterline here seem to stretch for miles and miles. The foreshore is littered with colourful shells and shingle which I find visually stimulating, and dissected by groynes at intervals that naturally lead the eye up the beach … all of which I find a joy to paint, especially in watercolour.

* Do you have a studio now?

J: Yes, I’m now fortunate enough to have a lovely little studio at the end of our garden. It’s separate from the house, which I feel is important, as well as being warm and dry.

It’s actually a ‘fancy shed' bought from the proceeds of an exhibition a few years ago, with larger windows than your average garden shed and also has electricity to it, so it’s quite cosy in the winter months and, unlike the kitchen table, allows me to work on several pieces simultaneously.

* James, you were born and brought up on Mersea, weren't you?
J: Yes, I was born on the island, at home, in Victory Road, probably one of the last few, and can trace my ancestors back here several hundred years. I had a very happy childhood, with summers mucking around the muddy creeks in boats and playing on the beach. When referring to Mersea, I can genuinely use the old cliché: 'I remember when all this was fields'!

During my late teens and early twenties, like many young people living in small communities, I became a bit disenchanted with the place and took myself off to Cornwall and there Maggie and I met and married at Trebarwith Strand, on the rugged north coast. We lived there for about five years before returning to live in Langenhoe in 1991 and then in 1999 I brought my family back home to Mersea Island.

* So, Maggie, how do you enjoy living on Mersea Island? - it's a far cry from the Cornish coast!

M: When we moved from Cornwall with our three young children I felt quite unable to appreciate that there was anything attractive about Mersea Island. Where we’d moved from was either rough seas and wild weather or a beautiful tranquil mile long sandy beach. In contrast, the tide here seemed to just slide in and then slide away again.

Then we moved onto the island and I gradually noticed the beauty of the birds, huge skies, sunsets and even the mud, having its own shiny charm! Since opening the ArtCafé I have really started to feel at home here and love the community life. It’s quite different for me to live in a place where everyone knows each other.

* Finally, what are your future plans for the ArtCafés?

J&M: There are things we’d really like to do to expand the ArtCafés, but for the immediate future we are going to get our online gallery/shop up and running, organise our Winter and Spring menus and, for 2009, plan some exhibitions of selected artists.

Most important for us will be maintaining our homemade, handmade, local-as-possible ethos.

My thanks to James and Maggie for taking time out from their busy ArtCafé lives to talk to me, and to staff-members Jess, Will and Lee, for so cheerfully putting up with having a camera pointed at them while they were getting on with their work.

You can find the Mersea ArtCafé here and the Colchester ArtCafé here.

Keep an eye on the ArtCafé website for the forthcoming online gallery (I'll post an update here on Musings when it goes live).

Meanwhile, do visit James and Maggie's regularly updated arty/foody/Merseacentric blog, The Artist and the Tartist.

(Thanks also to Jonathan for the fab photos!)


monix said...

What a fascinating interview, J. I am surprised that you manage to get any work done with such temptations on your doorstep. Mersea Island is now top of my To Be Visited list.

Juliet said...

Well, I confess to not having done an awful lot of work this morning, at least! And you are now top of my To Be Visited By list, M, so let's get our 2009 diaries out soon and pencil something in.

60 Going On 16 said...

Beautiful as the landscape is here on Exmoor, I would have to drive a fair old distance to find anything that would compare with your ArtCafé. And that would completely defeat the object. We all need somewhere like this within easy reach - to revive all our senses.

Thanks for a gorgeous post, J!

galant said...

Love the Art Cafe! Like 60 going on 16 says, here in Torbay I'd have to drive a fair distance to find anything like this - Topsham is a bit arty, so is Totnes, but it's the combination of the two which is so great: food and art! Love the photos, too, especially of James's lovely paintings. And I've now learned where Ruth Watson hangs out! I always watched Hotel Inspector and actually preferred her cut-and-thrust approach to that of Olga Polizzi (who has taken over in this series as the Inspector, lovely though Olga undoubtedly is.) I love Orford and every inch of that Suffolk coast! Indeed, seeing all those lovely cakes (and as I can't get to Mersea right now to eat in the Art Cafe!) has encouraged me to bake this afternoon! Husband's birthday tomorrow, so will it be a chocolate cake or spicy rock buns? Certainly nothing the vile scones we had this week in Honiton which were heated up in a MICROWAVE! I ask you ... they came to the table steaming and smelling of raw dough. How difficult is it, I asked myself, to bake a half-decent scone? But I've digressed. Thank you for a lovely Art and Tart blog!
Margaret Powling

Greg Dunn said...

What a wonderful post, Juliet. I'd no idea there was so much going on in the caff, as my visits there have usually been on Sunday mornings, trying to breakfast my way through crushing hangovers. Haven't been for ages, and I really miss those happy days, contrasted with the autumnal and economic gloom we are currently enduring. Sorry to be a miserable old Hector!

Nan said...

What a fantastic piece of writing, well, really reporting! It should be in tourist guides and the local paper. I so, so want to be there!

unclewilco said...

Lovely shed, maybe he can share it over at