The Cumbrian property that was the backdrop to a companionship between the artist and a young female painter has been granted listed status

 For years it has lain empty, at the mercy of sea winds, vandals and thieves. Few who pass the sombre, red sandstone church nestling on the harbourside of the small Cumbrian coastal town of Maryport may give it much thought.

Fewer still may appreciate that it provided the backdrop to a blossoming friendship between one of Britain’s best-loved artists, LS Lowry, and a young, female painter he championed.

But perhaps now this may all change as Christ Church, also known as the “Sailors’ Church” or “Mariners’ Church”, has been granted listed building status amid plans to convert it into an arts hub.

It would make for a fitting repurposing of a building that was the subject of several paintings and sketches by Lowry and the Cumbrian artist Sheila Fell, the daughter of a local coalminer, whose work has been bought by the Tate. Dr Eleanor Bolton, who, with Professor Andrew Bradley, is seeking entries for a Catalogue raisonné listing all of Fell’s oil paintings, said she was recognised during her lifetime as one of the finest English landscape painters of the latter half of the 20th century.

Lowry completed an oil painting of Christ Church, On the Quay, in 1954 – the year before he met Fell when she gave her first solo exhibition at the Beaux Arts Gallery in Mayfair.

“He subsequently arranged to meet with Fell and, after seeking the approval of her parents, agreed to provide her with financial assistance for the next two years,” Bolton explained. “Fell and Lowry, despite their widely differing ages and lifestyles, became good friends.”

Bolton believes it was likely that Lowry initiated the pair’s visits to Maryport, given his passion for depicting industrial townscapes.

In addition to On the Quay, the church appears in at least three other of his works – The Old Quay, Maryport, (1956), Maryport (1960) and Church on the Quay, Maryport (1959). Fell completed several paintings of the town’s harbour featuring the church in the 60s. But by then the town was in decline.

Once a small fishing village, it had grown prosperous when the Senhouse family, who were slave owners, transformed it into a major coal port in the 18th century.

But by the 19th century, Maryport was unable to compete with larger ports. Local shipbuilding, steel and iron industries struggled, and by the 1930s over half the town’s workforce was unemployed.

The port closed to cargo in the 60s, and a number of its landmark buildings fell into disuse.

Christ Church, which was completed in 1872, closed in 2013 and has remained empty since.

Last year, a London-based businessman sought permission to transform it into a late-night venue, a proposal which was rejected by local councillors. Thieves stole lead from its roof and damaged its plumbing.

But now the church, like Maryport, is poised for a renaissance. Christ Church has just received grade II listed status, and there are plans to turn it into a museum and gallery space as part of a wider heritage action plan overseen by Historic England to restore Maryport’s buildings.

Catherine Dewar, regional director for the north-west of England at Historic England, described Christ Church as a fascinating building and one that would have had particular importance to local sailors. “It’s a very striking building. I like to imagine the sailors coming back into port and its lovely red Cumbrian sandstone spire probably being the first thing they would have seen.”

Story courtesy The Guardian