The question on everybody’s lips when they enter Bils & Rye is where the name comes from. ‘Nearly everybody who visits asks us – and which one of us is Bils and which one’s Rye,’ says owner Nick Bentley, who owns the gallery with his wife Kate. ‘It’s actually Bilsdale and Ryedale – the two districts that meet at Helmsley, our nearest town,’ says Nick. ‘We had originally looked at opening a business in Helmsley. But we liked the name, so we kept it.’
Bils & Rye is actually located in the Ryedale village of Nunnington, amidst the rolling Howardian Hills, just moments from the North York Moors. The picturesque village is best known to many as the home of Nunnington Hall, a manor house with beautiful period rooms, lush gardens and peacocks on the lawn. Just down the road from the hall, Bils & Rye can be found at Nunnington Studios, a building with an impressive heritage of its own. ‘It was built by John Bunting, who was a local sculptor,’ Nick explains. ‘He trained with Henry Moore and Robert Thompson, the mouse man, and then went on to train Anthony Gormley at Ampleforth College.’
Kate is an artist herself, while Nick has had a number of different jobs over the years; he was an air traffic controller, worked in events management, moved to Sweden to work as a chef, then met Kate while selling meat to the hotel she was working at. They lived in Canterbury for a while, but after the relapse of an old neck injury, Nick took some time off work, and the couple moved to Nunnington.
Since opening in February last year, the gallery has grown from 15 artists in a 30 square metre space, to four rooms with 64 artists on display and a total of 120 on the books. Stock tends to be limited in price to no more than £5,000, although some sculptures may cost a little more. However, visitors on a budget can pick up ceramic and pewter items for less than £10, as well as small items such as greetings cards. Bils & Rye also stock paintings, paper art, wood, glass and jewellery, but ceramics and sculpture remains key to their offering. ‘We feel we’ve probably got the biggest display of ceramics in the north of England, if not the UK, currently,’ says Nick.
The display changes weekly, and around 10 artists a week approach Bils & Rye wanting to exhibit. The gallery pride themselves on being approachable. ‘We felt that not enough new work was on show in most galleries. Everyone’s playing it very safe, but we wanted to take risks.’ The couple go out looking for information on emerging artists too. ‘We trawl the country and we use social media a lot.’
Nick is keen to ensure that visitors feel relaxed when they visit the gallery – Bils & Rye is all about friendly faces, affordable art and a warming cuppa while you browse. ‘We wanted a homely feel because we want to display works in the way people might actually use them. It’s a very relaxed environment – you get a cup of tea when you walk in, and during the winter we’ve got a wood stove burning.’ There is no obligation to buy either. ‘We don’t do any high pressure sales. The pieces are either right for our clients or they’re not.’
They also insist that you get your hands on the merchandise. ‘A lot of what we carry is very tactile; the makers want it to be held,’ says Nick. ‘Quite often people say, “You don’t know me, I break everything,” so you literally have to pick up a pot and put it in their hands,’ he laughs. But Nick believes that personal experience of an object is essential. He cites one of the items in their collection, smoke-fired ‘Hugs’ pots by Karen Banks, as an example. ‘They’re designed to be held and hugged and there’s a warmth to them. It’s all about grabbing the passion that the maker puts into their work.’
Nick also encourages visitors not to worry about popping in after a day out in the countryside. ‘We have a lot of walkers in the area and we absolutely welcome them, muddy boots and all,’ he says. ‘We have a very rustic floor! Dogs and children too – it’s not a problem. Everybody’s welcome.’
Bils & Rye
Nunnington Studios, Low Street, Nunnington, YO62 5UR