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Cornish Arts & Culture

Spotlight on: Shelley Thornton, Artist in Residence

How did the residency come about?

It was a meeting of minds. I was looking for my first artist residency. I wanted my first one to be in my home county of Cornwall – ideally in a hotel on a cliff top overlooking a beach. The Headland was perfect. It’s an iconic, majestic, heritage building with a chequered history in a wild dramatic location above Newquay’s famous Fistral Beach. It has a timeless appeal with grand traditions, opulence and age-old charm, but it also embraces the modern. The Headland fits me perfectly and I think I’m a perfect fit for it.

I approached Veryan Palmer (owner/director) with a proposal. She was most interested and came to see me in my studio in St Ives where we agreed the residency would go ahead in early October. Not only would this be my first artist residency, I would be the Headland’s first artist in residence.

Veryan said “This has been something we have wanted to do for a long time, so we are delighted to finally have an artist in residence at the Headland…Our dramatic location is perfect for inspiring art and we cannot wait to see what Shelley creates. As part of this project., we hope the guests also gain insight into her talents.”

What was your brief?

The brief was very loose apart from I was creating two larger abstract artworks to sit in new suites. That said, I had a good idea of what the Board liked about my work and had suggested some themes – some based on the building, the terracotta and pebbledash of the Hotel, some based on the beach, the ocean and the sunsets; and others based on the Harbour and fishing vessels. In the end, I merged them all. I didn’t get the colour schemes for the suites until I was at the Hotel which meant I had to make several orders of paints and materials for the larger works whilst there. But that was all part of the fun and the immediacy of the project.

What happened on arrival at the Hotel?

All the staff were wonderful. Michael the doorman cheerfully helped me unload the car and take everything up to my rooms. There was a lot to unload – canvases, paints, materials and of course my personal effects including gear for painting, sea and pool swimming, and walking.

I stayed in one wonderful sea-view room and next door, Leigh, the Marketing and Sales Manager, had created a wonderful studio for my residency. The two rooms have since been merged into one luxurious new Ocean Suite.

Veryan was very enthused by the idea that the works would be created in one of the very rooms that they would reside in.

How did you spend your first day?

After unpacking and being taken on an excellent tour by Veryan’s EA, Liz, I spent some time setting up my studio and did a first quick sketch of the view through the window.

I then took a stroll on the beach, took some photographs and watched my first Fistral Sunset. It was stunning – and, as it turned out, the first of many to come. I hadn’t expected to be watching such stunning sunsets in October but there they were – perfection.

I then ate in the wonderful new restaurant Ren Mor – with its fabulous sea views and second-to-none food and service.

Afterwards, I marvelled at some of the amazing artwork adorning the Hotel’s walls – especially that of the world-renowned St Ives’ artists Barbara Hepworth, Sandra Blow, Terry Frost and Breon O’Casey. I felt honoured that I would soon be joining them on the walls.

I then sank into the luxurious Egyptian cotton sheets and had a deep uninterrupted sleep far removed from my normal family life.   

And your first week?

The first week was mostly glorious weather - a return to the heady, sunny days of summer.  I immersed myself completely in my new surroundings. I had the luxury of time to absorb the landscapes, structures, stories and emotions that run through the place day to day.

After a wonderful Headland breakfast – probably the best Hotel breakfast I’ve ever had and certainly the widest choice, I took walks on the beach and into the harbour. I soaked up both the heritage and the modern-day culture.

I swam in the ocean and the fantastic Headland pools.

Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean I was struck by how different it felt to the same ocean in St Ives. It was very wild that first week – with big surf. The relentlessness and speed of the sets of waves were exhilarating – though not very conducive to swimming. There was a surf competition that weekend which I loved watching from my studio window whilst I worked.

The sunsets were also different each day – some fiery reds, some more subtle oranges. I watched them from various vistas – on the beach, from my studio, and from the Aqua Club – which I loved.

Working in my specially created studio, I translated my experiences into sketches and preliminary works. I had an open studio on some afternoons and enjoyed conversations with curious visitors. Some of the hotel staff in particular were intrigued with what I was doing. The concierges, Sarah and Ken, who helped broker the donation of some used fishing rope were fascinated to know what I intended to do with it.

How did you know you were on the right track?

The owners and staff were great. They left me to get on with my residency and do whatever I needed to. After the first week though I wanted to let them know what I had been up to and what I was proposing. So Veryan came to see me. She instantly got the concepts before I talked her through them: “It’s like the view out of the window. We couldn’t have just commissioned you to do those without you living and working here”.  She loved them, and took a few photos to show the others. Others loved them too. They commented that they were very bold, textured and modern and that they would make a great statement in the new suites. 

And how did you spend the second week?

The second week was very much about creating the artwork – especially the larger two. Fortunately for me, the weather turned wet and wild. Although I still took walks and swam and of course enjoyed the Headland’s marvellous hospitality, I spent long days in the studio.

To make the large canvases authentic, I wanted to complete them in the Hotel. I didn’t want to take them back to my studio in St Ives.  That put me under pressure but I relish a deadline.


What inspiration fed into your work?

All of my experience that first week somehow shaped my work. I did think I would major on one theme for the two larger pieces. But in fact I merged them all.

My work often starts with a place – whether that be a landscape, a seascape, or a cityscape. So my starting point was the view from my studio.  Through the window I could see Fistral Beach, the Atlantic Ocean, the wild seas, the dramatic sunsets. But I could also see the terracotta and pebbledash of the Hotel’s construction.

And on my walks into Newquay Harbour I saw fishing and pleasure boats, fishing ropes, rusty structures, and lines in the sand. I was also struck by how different the sand was on Fistral – pounded by the wild seas – to that in the sheltered Harbour.

In the end, the large canvases reflected all of those elements. They evoke the view from the window of the suite with the wild Atlantic, stunning sunsets, and fishing trips from Newquay Harbour on the other side of the Headland.

Created using acrylics, sand (from both Fistral Beach and Newquay Harbour), terracotta dust, rust, beeswax, reclaimed fishing rope and resin, the ‘window frame’ (on the left in Headland 1 and on the right in Headland 2) echoes the striking architecture of the iconic Hotel with terracotta dust to reflect the Headland’s trademark Welsh terracotta. The more rugged Fistral sand doubles as the pebbledash.

The paint and beeswax main sections recreate teal fishing boats in Newquay’s historic harbour, with decorative markings in red, yellow and white.  But they also reflect the wild seas of Fistral in the shimmering aqua colours.  The red and yellow markings also nod to Fistral’s dramatic sunsets. The bottom section references rusted metals in the Harbour, and its beach with finer sand from its more sheltered waters. The reclaimed rope – further reflecting the fishing heritage – was donated by local fishing celebrity Phil Trebilcock.

What do the owners and others think of the outcomes?

As Veryan was away in London collecting the Independent Hotel of the Year Award on my last day, I packaged up the canvases securely and they were put in store. She didn’t see them until their recent unveiling.

She said: “the artwork created by Shelley was perfect.  Taking inspiration from our iconic building,  Newquay harbour and our beautiful natural environment, two pieces of highly personalised curated art were created for our new Ocean Family Suites that Studio Far West had spent so much time creating the designs for”.

Where can we view and/or buy your art?

You can view the two large canvases by staying in magnificent new Ocean Suites 301 or 309 where they both hang. Other than that, we’re planning an exciting exhibition in spring 2025 and have other plans afoot.

You can read more about my Headland work at : Artist in Residence at the Headland Hotel - Artlantic , QR code below.

Or view my works at events: Art Events - Recent Past & Upcoming - Artlantic, visit my studio: Visit Shelley Thornton at the St Ives Art Studio - Artlantic, or buy online: Original Artworks - Artlantic.


What did you learn from your residency?  

As this was my first residency, it was a little daunting. Would I be able to pull it off? Would the client like the results? Would I enjoy it?

Although I have been under pressure before, and am not afraid of hard work and challenges, it was good to know that I can rise to the occasion.

Not only that, I loved every minute of it. It was a truly wonderful experience.

Lastly, how do you think your experience on the residency will inform your future practice?  

The experience of this residency will live with me forever. With a busy family life, it is not possible to completely immerse myself in my surroundings and work for extended periods. Being afforded this opportunity was wonderful and something I intend to repeat periodically.

Trying new materials is also good so I was pleased to use ground terracotta dust for the first time and reclaimed fishing rope.

And whilst I already have a deep connection with the North Atlantic coastline, getting up close and personal with the changing light, textures and colours of a different part of the coast has presented me with new challenges to capture in my abstractions.

My interest in engaging the public has also deepened. It was good to rouse the curiosity of staff, visitors and locals who perhaps haven’t looked at art very much. I truly believe access to the arts should be for all and hope I’ve played a part in helping some people see things differently.

Read more about our Ocean Family Suites here.