PUBLISHED: 12:43 08 April 2013 | UPDATED: 12:35 11 April 2013
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Next year sees the bi-centenary of the Royal Baths and Pump Rooms, the flagship building in the heart of Leamington Spa.
In that time it has undergone myriad changes, its fortunes waxing and waning in tandem with the town itself.
“You can pretty much trace the history of the town through the history of the Royal Pump Rooms,” says Jeff Watkin, Warwick District Council’s arts and heritage manager whose office is in the Pump Rooms.
This is a town that owes its very existence to the discovery of springs of saline water, and the fervent belief that imbibing the water and bathing in it would cure many ills.
The Regency-styled Pump Rooms were opened in July 1814 as a commercial venture to exploit the spa phenomenon.
At the time Leamington was a small agricultural parish of 2,000 souls; within a few years it was Warwickshire’s principal tourist destination, far more popular than its neighbours Stratford and Warwick, explains Jeff.
The bath houses brought in health tourists and medics by the stagecoachload; around the Pump Rooms, streets of fine townhouses, grand hotels, libraries, museums, galleries and gardens were quickly created. The granting of a royal charter and the regal name of Royal Leamington Spa by Queen Victoria in 1838 marked the pinnacle.
But the bubble of burgeoning prosperity did not take long to pop. The expansion of the railway network to take city dwellers to the seaside spas, and the easy availability of foreign travel for the wealthy, helped to signal the beginning of the end of the town’s spa industry. By 1880 the spa boom was all but over.
For Royal Leamington Spa’s residents, of course, that was not the end of the story. The motor industry, tourism, iron foundries, retail and education provided employment, while proximity to Birmingham and Coventry, allied to its excellent range of facilities and its train station links, established it as a commuter town into the 20th century.
Now it’s not just a great retail and heritage destination; it’s also a popular choice for computer game developers and IT consultants to set up, with an estimated 1,000 employed locally; enough to warrant its new tag as a ‘silicon spa town’.
The Pump Rooms itself has undergone a similar story of reinvention, operating through the ages as a spa, Turkish baths, public swimming pool, hydrotherapy treatment centre, wartime tea dance hall and rehabilitation centre.
Today it is home to the town library, an art gallery, museum, visitor information centre and café, attracting more than half a million visitors a year.
Jeff Watkin, responsible for overseeing its current incarnation as a public arts venue, is rightly proud that the Royal Pump Rooms remains at the heart of community life in the town.
“There’s a desire to see this building succeed, even against the odds. It’s a listed building so retains much of the look and feel of the original spa baths; indeed visitors can still drink the spa water at a tap right outside.”
The building itself is open six days a week. Adds Jeff: “Around half of our visitors are local, and many come back time after time.”
What visitors to the Pump Rooms’ museum and art gallery find today is an eclectic and fascinating range of exhibits and experiences, all housed in a building which pays homage to its origins as a bathhouse through its salt-encrusted exposed brickwork, high ceilings and windows and stunning ceiling frameworks.
The museum tells the story of the Royal Pump Rooms and its place in the history of Leamington and Warwickshire.
Among its principal rooms are the stunning Turkish Baths dating from the 1860s, complete with original stained glass round windows and coloured mosaics; and the health spa bathroom, with douche slab, hoist and circular shower. Mick Jagger once made a Rolling Stones video lying on the very slab.
There’s also a fabulous child-friendly interactive area with flaps, buttons, puzzles and games.
In the art gallery, sited in the room that housed the main pool, an eclectic collection has been carefully amassed – recent additions include water-shed, a white lacquer cabinet containing thrown porcelain vessels by cult author and artist Edmund de Waal. The work is inspired by Leamington Spa and reimagines the doctor’s carrying case from the spa era.
It sits alongside works by the likes of sculptor Marc Quinn and other acclaimed local and international painters from across all eras.
Next door, in the temporary exhibition space until April 23rd, is an incredible collection of works by John Bridgeman, known locally as Bridge, who for more than 40 years lived in or near the town.
He was head of sculpture at Birmingham School of Art for three decades and his work includes landscape paintings, small-scale nude figures and dancers, and large public works.
The works on display include the moving and revered Torture Wall, a collection of individual figures and studies in concrete fondu, displaying classical warriors and torture victims.
It’s not just inside the Pump Rooms that Leamington Spa’s art credentials are encouraged. The Royal Spa Centre nearby hosts national comedians and performers, touring and local drama companies, events, festivals, films and art exhibitions.
Then, just five minutes walk away from the Pump Rooms, is Gallery150, on Livery Street, home to the voluntary, non profit organisation Leamington Studio Artists (LSA). Managed by artist Gerry Smith, this is a brilliant space for home and studio based artists to share and sell their work.
The LSA team has also developed the town’s art trail, helping art lovers discover where they can view and buy local art.
It takes in the likes of The White Horse pub in Clarendon Street and Wilde’s Café in The Parade, where art and photos hang on the walls, art galleries at the Loft Theatre, Royal Spa Centre and Royal Pump Rooms, as well as commercial galleries including Warwick Gallery, Castle Gallery and Warwick Studios.
Bryan B. Kelly is currently artist-in-residence at Gallery150. An approachable, friendly painter, Bryan produces vivid works in the naïve tradition, using pointillism to create vibrant scenes. His admiration for David Hockney is evident in his choice of bright colour.
“My paintings are about avoiding reality; when people look at my work they can escape, back to childhood or happy times and places; as someone said, they are for wet, miserable days!” Bryan, an Irish-born former potter, says Leamington Spa is an inspiring town to work in.
“Many people here are knowledgeable about art, and encourage artists to try new styles and techniques; there’s a really good sense of community.”
Christine Knight is another popular local artist, creating paintings in various media for more than 45 years. She describes her work thus: “My art is, essentially, a selection of almost random mental images, fleeting pictures from the past, which have left imprints on my heart and my mind.”
Both Christine and Bryan’s works are part of an exhibition, Renewal4, which showcases the work of the LSA and marks the fourth anniversary of the opening of Gallery150. It closes on March 3 but selected works are on show six days a week, Tuesday to Sunday.
There is also a monthly contemporary art fair, held at the corner of Livery Street by the town hall on the fourth Saturday each month, starting again on April 27.
A recently founded studio complex, called Althorpe Studios and Gallery, has opened in Radford Road, run by Jonathan and Suminder Treadwell. Eight studios host 16 artists, including painters, ceramicists, sculptors, photographers and textile artists. There is also a large gallery space, The Barn, which hosts regular exhibitions and events. n