House for art lovers

A SPUR OF THE MOMENT decision in December 2006 resulted in the Blamire family becoming the proud owners of their very own art gallery in Castle Douglas. After much hard graft, with everyone pulling together, Jill, Roger, their daughter Zoe and sons Leo and Joss finally reopened the doors to the McGill Duncan Gallery in August last year.

Sympathetically renovated to retain its quirky features, the new lease of life seems to have enthused locals as well as the family. Clients who pop in to browse linger on the comfy sofas enjoying a cup of tea while Jill enthusiastically tells them about forthcoming exhibitions and new artists she and Zoe have discovered.

As the two women spend the majority of their time here, the gallery has become a home from home. It was the whole family's appreciation of art – and the fact that they were running out of wall space in their own house – that prompted them to take on the gallery.

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Jill explains: "As I began to think about retirement, one thing I was sure of was that I didn't want to do nothing. Our family has always been involved in art in some shape or form.

"We were friends with the owner and always said that if he decided to sell up we'd like to know. In December 2006 he went round to Roger's workshop (Roger works as a picture framer] and told him he was ready to retire. We only had a few days to make a decision. It was quite nerve-wracking."

What was also nerve-wracking was that none of the family had any experience of running a gallery. "My interest in art started at school but I was encouraged to pursue an academic career and art wasn't considered academic," Jill recalls. "When Roger and I met we had creative jobs in a theatre workshop, but I needed to earn more money so I became a primary teacher. On and off over the years I've painted for pleasure."

With such creative parents, it's no wonder the children have all developed a love of art in its various forms. Although Leo and Joss are not directly involved in the day-to-day business of the gallery, they both take a keen interest, and Zoe, after a diagnosis of ME left her unable to take up her place on a degree course in art history at St Andrews University, has become a key part of the success of the gallery.

While Jill concentrates on front of house, Zoe is behind the scenes working on her laptop, organising exhibitions and contacting artists. The mother-and-daughter team decided on the style of the gallery together, making sure they embraced the original features of the building.

Jill says: "The house dated back to 1790 and I think it was one of the first homes in Castle Douglas. The previous owner lived here with the gallery on the ground floor and he gradually extended into next door and out the back."

Jill and Zoe have set the gallery area over two levels, which gives them plenty of exhibition space, but they also intend to use the garden at the back for some quirkier exhibits as time goes on.

"I was quite a driving force, encouraging Mum and Dad to take on the gallery," Zoe says. "I loved the space, especially the garden, and I'd always enjoyed being there. Through Mum and Dad I've grown up with artists and I do my own painting and stained glass. I haven't had any formal training but if I have an idea or see something that needs doing around the house then I'll have a go.

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"Since we took on the gallery, I've come to really appreciate the 1920s/30s paintings that it has a tradition for, and I love the Arts and Crafts movement, especially in a home. I like pieces that look nice but have a function, too."

Zoe also had a lot of input into the design of the family home and, when you see the Blamire abode in the nearby village of Gelston, it becomes apparent that owning a gallery was a natural progression for this family. It's like encountering a Who's Who of Dumfries and Galloway artists – Christine Smith, Mary Lloyd, Hazel Campbell, Alexander Robb, Ed Iglehart, not to mention the family's own works. Every picture tells a story and the John Johnstone painting in the kitchen has particular significance. It was the first painting Jill and Roger bought when they married, and Johnstone was also one of their first exhibitors in the gallery.

"I think it's important to have things you love in your house, made by people you know," says Zoe. "We're all interested in art, painting and drawing. And colour is quite important to us too."

This immediately becomes obvious when I'm shown into the candy pink kitchen. "The pink kitchen was my idea," explains Zoe, smiling. "But Mum also loves pink so it wasn't difficult to persuade her to go with the idea. Dad took a bit more coercing but he really likes it now."

As well as influencing colour schemes, Zoe has developed logos and branding for the gallery, collaborating with a web designer, and came up with last year's Christmas card design. She is busy organising exhibitions for 2009, in keeping with Jill's philosophy on original art.

"I try only to have things that I like in the gallery," says Jill. "Paintings, glass, pottery or sculpture – we all agree that we will only have original artwork, nothing mass-produced or factory-made. Our aim is to show local, national and international artists, but it all has to be original."

Embarking on this new career has been a huge undertaking for the Blamire family, but it's one they're enjoying immensely, despite the hard work. "Having the gallery has meant our leisure and our work time have come together more," says Zoe. "It's a big commitment but it is great working as a family."

McGill Duncan Gallery, 231 King Street, Castle Douglas, tel: 01556 502468,

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