Andrew Liddle, Guest Writer

Skinningrove’s Bright New Welcome For Visitors

Andrew Liddle talks to two men who worked together on a very special local project

The village of Skinningrove, hidden in a steep valley on the north-east coast between Port Mulgrave and Saltburn, is easy to overlook. When the local council recently wanted to welcome visitors and promote its seaside attractions they could have found no finer poster artist than Richard O’Neill to encapsulate all its rich history and culture in a single image.

He is one of the best known and most loved of the very popular modern school of ‘retro travel poster artists’ that have brought the nostalgic glamour of those early railway posters to the new Millennium. Richard was one of the first artists in the field and is certainly among the most prolific having done in excess of a thousand vividly evocative images, covering the length and breadth of the country. Perhaps no artist of any kind has evoked the spirit of Yorkshire in so many places, in all the richly contrasting corners of the county from the Humber to the Tees, in villages, towns and cities, in the rolling Dales, on the moors, in iconic harbours the length of the coast.

Nick Wesson
Nick Wesson
Richard O'Neill
Richard O'Neill
He was the first choice of Nick Wesson, Marketing Officer for the Land of Iron Museum (formerly the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum), which re-opened in 2023, having been expanded and renovated thanks to a National Heritage grant. And there is much heritage to celebrate in an area once world famous for its ironstone industry. “When asked for my help to provide a bright welcoming sign to the village that sums up the community, I naturally thought of Richard whose work is very well known in these parts,” he says.

The two men worked closely together over three months to come up with what Nick calls, “a composite image, rooted in history and culture.” The view from the sea up the valley recalls the time when the terrace of workers’ cottages was overlooked by the blast furnaces, above the maze of fishermen’s dwellings. “The problem was to create an idea of what it was like over time but not to overcrowd it with too many mill chimneys, mining wheels and the pigeon huts.”

“It was quite a challenge,” adds Richard, a former travel artist of the year, “because there were no aerial photographs from the sea to go on, but that was the only angle from which I could include the salient details.” To help him he made an actual 3-D model out of cardboard and papier-mâché, which when transferred to the computer he was able to twist and turn to his satisfaction. “It was a bigger canvas that I normally work on but great fun because there was more scope than usual.”

When the sign was unveiled on the 22nd of March, it was immediately hailed by locals as a great success. “We even got cross party political support,” Nick jokes. Simon Clarke MP said: “This is really lovely - well done Land of Iron! And credit to the Council, this is excellent. We need more of this.” Luke Myer, Labour Candidate, agreed: “Love this! Makes you proud of our home in East Cleveland. Great work Land of Iron, Richard, and our Council for delivering it.”

The artist is indeed worthy of special praise. “I love the way we've got in the viaduct, which came down in the 1800s but was an essential part of our history, when we supplied the world with iron.” Nick stares at the original with obvious pride. “And look on the beach, you can see Chris Killip with his camera.”

He’s referring to one the great social realist photographers who visited the village over a two-year period in the early 1980s to photographically document the declining fishing industry. (Chris’s images feature in the permanent collections of many major institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Museum Folkwang, Essen; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. “It was essential to bring him in,” says Richard. “He was able to immortalise a vital chapter in the history of the community.”

Nick, born and raised just up the coast in Skelton, and a History graduate of Manchester University, nods in agreement. “I have found my dream job two minutes from home, working in the Land of Iron to promote the area I love. Skinngrove’s role in powering the Industrial Revolution cannot be overstated. There’s nothing I’d rather do and I’m sure my grandfather, one of the last of the ironstone miners, would approve.”

Ironstone mining in Cleveland and North Yorkshire took place on a large scale and dates as far back as Roman times. The Land of Iron holds the largest collection of objects and archives relating to the industry in the country and showcases the village's mining heritage. Not only does it provide a unique underground experience and insight into how 6.2 million tons of ironstone was extracted locally, but makes clear the impact of the industry on the prosperity of the United Kingdom.

Richard, originally from Bradford but now based in Richmond, North Yorkshire, describes himself as a ‘computer age naturalistic artist drawing directly onto the screen. He creates a picture with a touch-sensitive stylus on a large-screened Apple ipad, mounted on an easel.

His practice is to zoom in on the area, blow it up by about four times and ply the stylus like a pencil to pick out detail. “I have to insert more detail than the eye will see when the image is reduced to original size,” he explains. “Every line, every element … it’s all hand-dawn. What I like about the Skinningrove painting is that its size has allowed me to add much more detail.”

Visitors to the village are now welcomed by a work of digitalised impressionism, uniquely capturing the very essence of Skinningrove, in a way that neither the conventional artist’s personal conception nor the naked photograph could ever have done. "It would be impossible to do it better in a single image," Nick concludes.

If confirmation were needed of Richard’s achievement feast your eyes on his latest and largest work! And enjoy your visit to Skinningrove.

For more information on Richard O'Neill visit his website. Click here
More on The Land of Iron here

Land Of Iron Aerial View
Land Of Iron Aerial View