Where there's muck, there's art

If any English county - and its people - can claim an instantly recognisable character, it's Yorkshire. But does it really have its own regional tradition of visual art? That's the claim of The Great Yorkshire Art Show in Scarborough
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To some people - ie snobs - the words "Yorkshire" and "art" sit oddly together, and these snobs would have relished the opening party this week in Scarborough of the Great Yorkshire Art Exhibition, at which the complicated canapés one would expect in London were forgone in favour of choc-chip and ginger biscuits supplied by Botham's of Whitby.

To some people - ie snobs - the words "Yorkshire" and "art" sit oddly together, and these snobs would have relished the opening party this week in Scarborough of the Great Yorkshire Art Exhibition, at which the complicated canapés one would expect in London were forgone in favour of choc-chip and ginger biscuits supplied by Botham's of Whitby.

Certainly it's true that, apart from those superstars of sculpture, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (both represented with small works at the exhibition), Yorkshire is better known for literature than for visual art. In fact, however, there is a strong tradition here, and one that evolved very strangely, as a superb essay in the catalogue by Michael Paraskos, lecturer in fine art at Hull University, reveals.

The story of Yorkshire art in the past 150 years - the period covered by the exhibition - begins with landscape. When it comes to Romantic idealisation of nature, Yorkshire had it bad, and among the earliest pictures in the exhibition are weirdly glowing seascapes of Scarborough by John Atkinson Grimshaw, Robert Ernest Roe and Henry Barlow Carter - Yorkshire residents all.

The tradition is shown by the exhibition as being continued into the 20th century by the Staithes Group, who depicted the lives of fishermen until the high rate of deaths at sea began to seriously depress them. This is the root of Yorkshire art: a deep awareness of the physical world. The wildness of the landscape was always the unique selling-point of the county after all.

I myself grew up in York, and my role models of the adult world were the campers, ramblers and climbers - they seemed to be what the county was all about. Our house, like most others, had its small, revered stash of Dalesman magazines, and Ordnance Survey maps of the Dales and Moors. Go into any Yorkshire bookshop and you're met by stacks of books depicting cliffs, waterfalls and snowdrifts, with the photographer given equal billing with the writer. When I tell people I come from Yorkshire, they sometimes leap in with "Oh, so you grew up in the countryside?", and I badly want to say "Yes". (Actually, I occasionally do say "Yes", squaring my conscience by thinking of the fields that lay at the bottom of our garden, until they began extending our housing estate.)

As a boy, my favourite film, and that of my best mate Dave, was Kes, the story of a Yorkshire lad who escapes from his oppressive two-up, two-down, by going into the hills with his kestrel. It's the polarity of town and country that gives the film its power, and here the point about Yorkshire landscape in art needs refining. Whereas, say, the Highlands and Ireland presented artists with pure wilderness, Yorkshire also supplied counterbalancing "dark satanic mills", and plenty of them.

Accordingly, the Great Yorkshire Art Exhibition features the compellingly flat and glum Factories and Barges, painted by Charles Ginner in 1916. There's also an expressionistic nightmare of a coal-mine painted by the Jewish Russian émigré (and later Leeds resident) Jacob Kramer in 1920, and a vorticist slag-heap by Edward Wadsworth. Both were commissioned by Michael Sadler, founder, in 1903, of the Leeds Art Club.

A leading figure within this Club was the painter and art critic Herbert Read, a veritable Fred Trueman of the art world. In his early years, he was influenced by the well-named FW Moorman, turn-of-the-last-century folklorist and venerator of the Yorkshire countryside, especially the North Riding, where Read was born. (There were North, West and East Ridings, incidentally, but no South Riding, as if that very word "South" were somehow taboo).

Moorman believed the North Riding was special, on account of it having been settled not by Angles or Saxons but by a different Germanic tribe, the Geats of southern Scandinavia. Moorman passed on his interest in Germanic Yorkshire culture to Read, who helped orientate the Leeds Art Club towards German Expressionist artists, especially Kandinsky, whose then-radical abstraction Read himself echoed in his work of 1916 entitled Figure Composition No 1.

Read developed a strong antipathy to the pro-French orientation of the Bloomsbury Group in London. To Read, and the members of the Leeds Art Club, Roger Fry's supposedly groundbreaking exhibition of 1910, "Manet and the Post-Impressionists", was overrated. That was painting for wimps; too genteel and prettified by half, and fatally lacking the spiritually charged directness - the Northern bluntness, one might tendentiously say - with which Kandinsky and his followers responded to the physical world. The other thing Read had against the exhibition was that it was happening in London.

Regional pride was crucial in the development of Yorkshire art, and the current exhibition is in fact a meditation on local identity at a time of globalisation on the one hand and devolution on the other. In the wake of events in Scotland and Wales, some in Yorkshire are not content with the Government's noises in favour of a North Eastern Assembly, and the Campaign For Yorkshire wants to see a Yorkshire Assembly. It would be fair to say that this is not a mass movement, and that many in the county regard it with scepticism: "What next?" one Scarborough businessman attending the exhibition asked me. "Independence for New Earswick?"

Yorkshire is a very definite commodity, nonetheless. Sometimes I'm introduced at London parties by people who say, "Andrew's from Yorkshire", and leave it at that, knowing the words have a resonance that the formula "This is Andrew, he's from Leicestershire," clearly does not. Yorkshire has always regarded itself as the antidote to London. The last time I went into a York pub and played pool against a stranger (the custom "Winner stays on" allows you to meet all sorts), my opponent asked me where I lived. I told him London, whereupon he said, "Sorry I asked".

The independence of Yorkshire art, manifest in that stubborn Germanic outlook, endured after the Second World War. In the left-wing, unusually proletarian art community of the county, there was an emphasis on the social utility of art, which reflected the approach that had been taken by the Bauhaus school until the Nazis waded in. This philosophy lead to the creation in 1949 of the first Artist in Residence scheme, letting loose painters among the technicians of Leeds University.

Artists who benefited include Dennis Creffield, Terry Frost and Alan Davie - all represented in the exhibition. Harry Thubron, meanwhile, was bringing together students from the Leeds College of Art and the Leeds College of Technology, a project that sowed the seeds of the Polytechnic movement.

Multiculturalism has added a new dimension to Yorkshire art, only intensifying the question of identity. It's likely that, whatever comes along in the future, fans of the county will detect that continuing strain of dry wit and gimlet-eyed rigour - qualities exemplified possibly in the work of Leeds boy, Damien Hirst, who is also represented in the exhibition, which mainly comprises things not shown before.

Overall, I found it a revelation, and if anyone else tries to tell me I come from the county of cloth-caps and whippets, I've now got the ammunition to come back at them.

The Great Yorkshire Art Exhibition runs until 11 November at the Scarborough Art Gallery (tel: 01723 374753)