An Unexpected Discovery in the Depths of Northumberland

My wife and I have just spent a few days with four friends from the Lake District in Northumberland. While there one of our friends found a book on bastle houses, which are centuries-old fortified houses in the border country, built to give farmers protection from marauding robbers, known then as Reivers. In the book, there was a reference to a small company that made soft pastels located in the middle of deepest Northumbria near Kielder, in the Tarset area. I had never heard of the company and had no idea why it should be mentioned in a book about houses built several centuries ago, but it turned out that the book was written by the husband of one of the ladies who worked there. On their website, no less than Sean Scully says they are the very best pastels you can buy – in the world. He should know. Anyway, we spent a day looking at the bastle houses in the Tarset area or at least the remains of them. The next day, as I use some soft pastel in my mixed-media landscapes, three of us went back to visit Unison Colour at Thorneyburn, which occupies an idyllic property in a truly beautiful area just down the road from Kielder. They were very welcoming and took the time to show us around and talk about how the soft artists’ pastels are hand-made. It was fascinating. I also got to try the range and bought a selection of 15 mostly lightish colours.


There are several outbuildings in use for the production of these superb soft pastels. This is the coach house. It is set in the grounds of a beautiful period house and behind is the church of St Aidan, Thorneyburn and its tranquil churchyard 


I got to try out the range. The originator of these pastels was an artist called John Hersey and instead of graduating the colour range tonally, he developed a system of colours that associate together visually by group, and it gives the whole spectrum an individual look and a more purposeful organisation.


The ultimate room of delight for an artist. Wall-to-wall pastels stored in little cardboard boxes that each shout ‘buy me’. There are apparently more than 300 colours to choose from. Some of the colours we saw here were unbelievably intense and saturated. Really, a visual sweet shop.

It is no exaggeration to say I could happily have bought all 300 plus colours they produce. The pigments used are all natural, which means the finished product is very lightfast and the pigment to binder ratio is excellent, giving very good coloration and the pastels themselves are lovely and soft to use. I have attached here some images of our visit. Naturally, they don’t capture the excellence of the actual product, which now I am back home, I am using in my work and I have to say I should have known about this company and their products because I think they are better than the Rembrandt soft pastels I use at the moment. They just feel and work well for me. There are several buildings used, including a lovely coach house. I particularly loved the room where all the pastels are racked. It’s like a sweet shop for artists! Everything is done by just a few skilled craftsmen and women, one of whom told us she travelled 30 miles there and back every day, a round trip of 60 miles. Guess where she lived – in the village by Hadrian’s Wall that we were staying in and had just come from. When we got back we bumped into her walking her lovely retriever in the lane leading up to our cottage. So, the moral of this is simple; who would have guessed that in a book on a subject that not many people know about nor care about, is a reference to a place we had never heard of and a company we didn’t know existed, but because the reference was there, because we got interested in the admittedly arcane subject matter, and because we eventually looked up the company on the web, eventually we visited and found out about a material that, in my opinion as an artist, is superb. We know social media is all about connections etc but we should never forget that all communication works in a similar way, even a book, that old hat, old-fashioned, thing that we think might have had its day. As it happens I don’t think books are obsolete, I rather value them more. Don’t bother with the book, but do try the pastels……


The pigments are all completely natural rather than synthetics with the result that apparently the resultant product is light fast and the colour more durable. To me, as a selling artist, this was a very important point, as I want my collectors to be buying work that will stand the test of time.


Above: I’d love to work in a space like this!  Below: the mixture of clay, pigment, water and any ingredients that are secret to the recipe ( I’m sure they didn’t tell me everything!) is portioned out by hand like little meringues. This takes experience and the skills of someone like a Michelin chef or a master baker making 200 or more items all perfectly identical.


This lady was expertly hand rolling two types of green pastels. It was fascinating how deceptively easy she made it look. She was doing I think 200 of each. The process takes time do, rolling and cutting, rolling and cutting.


More pigment jars (because I love them) and more meringues starting out on their journey to becoming as Sean Scully says ‘The best soft pastels in the world’.


For more information go to

An Unexpected Discovery in the Depths of Northumberland

23 thoughts on “An Unexpected Discovery in the Depths of Northumberland

  1. What a great blog! Thanks for the introduction to this amazing place. Love Sean Scully’s work and can see why he would be drawn there…..and you too! May the 300 colours be yours soon!


  2. peterjgillies says:

    such a cool post. I cant remember why or how I came to follow your blog but I just took a look at my reader after at least 2 yrs away I think and catching up on all the blogs I used to read. Great post thats one special art shop!


  3. This place in Northumberland must be stunning, how wonderful to find it in this way. No doubt we will be seeing more of their pastels in your work very soon! I have been enjoying the Sharpenhoe series, very dark. I know it’s the wrong area, but rather Macbethian. I also detect a change emerging in some of these pictures – more sparing if you like. It’ll be fun to see where this goes.


    1. Thank you Tony! Yes it was an unexpected find indeed. Each year we seem to find something like this tucked away in the wilds. Last year, while looking for an artisan cider brewery on the Welsh borders, we stumbled across the foundation set up to continue the appreciation of the famous Australian artist Sir Sydney Nolan. You may know of him? It is a stunning exhibition space and archive, plus artist studios sponsored by the foundation, but completely hidden away in the middle of nowhere. we felt privileged to have discovered it. We also did them a small service, or at least one of my friends with us did. While leafing through a old book from the fifties in the museum to do with Nolan’s work, a letter from him dropped out of it. The curators had no idea it had been there and probably for decades. they were delighted as it added to the record of known correspondence from him. We saw an exhibition of his paintings about Gallipoli there, which was stunning. Hope all is good. Best wishes, Nicholas.

      Liked by 1 person

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