Welcome to our Puppet Theatre, Art Gallery, Live Music Venue, Vegetarian Café.
Who we are
John and Elaine Parkinson opened the gallery in 1997, based on a passion for good art and good food. They have combined the two in a unique setting and have developed the venture into the only purpose built arts venue in Eden over the last 25 years. John’s other passion, puppetry, has resulted in the building of one of only four puppet theatres in England.
Elaine was originally a teacher and skills learnt in this role have given her the organisational skills that underpin the planning of the season of exhibitions and artists. She also makes a strong input into the Puppet Theatre and school visits.
John Parkinson originally trained as a theatre designer. His design skills and knowledge of art enable him to give the gallery its unique style. He is responsible for how the gallery has developed creatively as well as for the development of the puppet theatre, giving input into its design and direction together with visiting freelancers.
Upfront Arts Charity No.1153089 was formed in 2012 and has a board of trustees which oversee the governance of the charity and work to promote its performances, fund raising and other activities such as educational outreach workshops and a resident youth theatre. The board works hard to ensure that the activities of the charity are fully accessible and are inclusive at all levels.
The name “Upfront” was chosen to reflect a direct and honest organisation and has now become a key part of its identity.
John was trained as a theatre designer at the design school of the English National Opera in London. His first job was as assistant designer for Leeds Playhouse. He then worked as a free lance designer for many northern theatres.
The old “Blue Box Theatre” at Keswick brought John to Cumbria where he established a design and build exhibition business called “Upfront”. This business went on to design and build many productions for the old theatre.
Upfront gallery is now the base for John’s studio and workshops, where he designs and builds for his puppet theatre. He also works as an artist on freelance commissions, which are usually site specific.
His theatre and exhibition experience give John the skill to work across a wide range of materials. His production management background gives him the ability to schedule a project to be ready on time and within budget.
The original buildings at Upfront date from around 1680 with later additions and alterations. The farm building was built to the plan of a traditional yeoman farmhouse.
The house had small mullioned Elizabethan windows, which were modernised in Victorian times into sash windows. The top and bottom stones of the upstairs window openings still have stone sections where the mullions were fitted. The inside of the house has a traditional ‘long passage’ and ‘sneck’ leading from the front door behind the fireplace wall and turning a corner into the main room of the house. This room, now one was originally divided into two smaller rooms, a parlour and the buttery. The room still has an open ingle-nook fireplace, behind a low beam and has a small cupboard in the wall next to the fire. This was to keep dry a family bible or a jar of salt.
The property was known as Unthank Farm when it was purchased in 1990. It was always the intention to open a gallery, arts venue and then puppet theatre on the site.
During the first few years it served as a home and workshops for Upfront Exhibitions. Theatre sets, props and commercial exhibition stands were designed and created in the workshops for national and international destinations. Trees were planted and work was carried out to convert and to restore the buildings which you now see. In 1997 the gallery finally opened to the public. Since then it has grown to take over most of the buildings on site and new buildings have been created to allow the gallery to grow. The first new buildings, designed in house, were given a rural architecture award in 2003.
In 2012 John Parkinson formed Upfront Arts Charity No. 1153089 and designed and fundraised to build a unique puppet theatre and arts venue. £180,000 was raised from The Rural Development Program for England, £90,000 from Arts Council England and £20,000 from local seat sponsorship. It is the first theatre ever to have been constructed in the Eden local authority area and is one of only four puppet theatres in England. Unique with two mobile puppeteers bridges for marionettes and a puppeteers pit in the ground for the operation of rod puppets.
The original project in 1997 was a massive gamble as it was funded entirely from money derived from Upfront exhibitions. Visitors to the Gallery can now take pleasure in spending time in buildings built with skill and renovated with love for future generations to enjoy.
The place-name Unthank is thought to mean a clearing on the edge of a wood, occupied by unwelcome settlers. However if you choose to visit the venue, rest assured that you will be made most welcome.