I recently spent a nostalgic weekend in Norwich. Nostalgic in a Cath Kidson and cupcakes way for a time and objects that were not really like that the first time round. I lived in Norwich from 1990-2003; however, my decade in Liverpool has made me a tourist in my ‘home’ city, which allows me to enjoy Norwich – and Norfolk’s – offer in a way I never did as a resident. Lamb feeding, cobbled streets, antique shops and cream teas all featured in this outrageously kitsch trip. But I injected a bit of edge with a taste of English whisky at St George’s distillery, a delicious lunch in The Bar at Cinema City (a genuinely independent cinema with an adjacent bar-restaurant in a converted medieval building), a drink in the shabby chic York Tavern and an excellent exhibition at NUCA Gallery (the gallery attached to Norwich University College of the Arts).
Against the backdrop of the self-proclaimed ‘Fine City’, the artist books of the Coracle publishing house work very well. A selection of Coracle’s output is on display at NUCA until 21 April 2012 in the exhibition Printed in Norfolk: Coracle Publications 1989-2012. Coracle is a printer-publisher, which set up in London in the 1970s, directed by artist and writer Erica Van Horn and poet and artist Simon Cutts. In 1996 they moved production of their distinctive brand of small-edition books and works on paper to South Tipperary Ireland, but for a short period in the 1990s also operated another base in Norfolk.
Some of the books are linguistic-visual puns; others illustrate poetry, or are the outcome of little ideas like wondering whether artworks can be produced from envelope interiors. The books are displayed next to printed lolly sticks, ceramic houses or other quirky objects that inspired them; they reference art history, illustrate poems, and are often the result of collaborations. Collaborators have included environmental artists Richard Long and Hamish Fulton. The imagery and typography that they employ have not strayed far from the approach that they established in the 1970s. Springs of rosemary, cottages, fungi, tables and twisted miscellaneous metal items all appear in distinctive pared-down form. Hand-writing is contrasted with printed text and many pages are left intentionally blank. As the Arts and Crafts movement 100 years earlier applied to its textiles and decorative arts, Coracle has taken the mass-produced printed book and given it the care and attention of a hand-crafted one-off. Many editions are contained within beautiful slip-cases, sewn, ring-bound or presented as a series of cards.
I particularly like the work of Van Horn, either on her own or collaborating with Cutts or others. It might be a bit gentle for some tastes, but for me Van Horn’s drawings capture small observations and over-looked forms and make them timeless and important. I first saw Van Horn’s work in the exhibition A Private Affair at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery in Preston where her work was shown alongside contemporary artists such as Roger Hiorns, Chris Offili, Tracey Emin and Grayson Perry. There is a streak of anti-establishment and art criticism in Coracle’s output as well, which keeps the work fresh and challenging.
Coracle embodies a utopian spirit that could exist in the past or the future, where like-minded people can join together to make a living and help other people to imagine alternative ways of being. It is a shame that they had to close their satellite branch as the ideology of this small publishing house works well in a city where history, modernity and contemporary life seem to co-exist peacefully. NUCA has partnered with the Book Hive, an independent book shop round the corner on London Street, to offer many of the current titles for sale. The prices range from £5 to £40 for books and up to £100s for a limited edition print (these can be purchased directly from their website at http://www.coracle.ie/index.html). Judging by the visitors to the exhibition and the custom in the Book Hive, as well as the company’s longevity, there is definitely room for this kind of home-spun publishing in the 21st century, and it can hold its own alongside e-books and ipad apps. Sometimes it is nice to slow down the pace of life, and Coracle feels like the equivalent of taking a break from urban living to eat a cream tea by the river.
There are plenty of other great eateries, visual arts and music venues, shops and architectural treats in Norwich, but I spent the last day of my visit at Happisburgh, a seaside town around 20 miles east of the city. This strange reflective place is losing its coastline at a rate of around 12 metres a year. As a visitor attraction, this is fascinating, as the debris of former homes along the coast, buffed into smooth chunks, mingles with the stones, shells and seaweed. If you want to think about the power of nature or the inevitable passing of time, this is as good a location to do it in as any. Norwich, and Happisburgh, is not as well known as it should be; possibly because the motorway peters out at Coventry if you are travelling from the west of England, and at Cambridge (1.5 hours away) if you are travelling from the south. There is a special quality to Norfolk, which I attribute to its proximity to London, while at the same time feeling remote and removed from the rest of the country. You have to make a special trip – as it isn’t on the way to anywhere – but if you can make the time, Norwich is well worth a visit.