My father and stepmother bought the Gurnard’s Head Hotel near Zennor, West Cornwall, in 1997 and asked if I would like to join them in running the business.
Previously I had studied at Falmouth School of Art and begun a degree at Breton Hall, Yorkshire. The BA course didn’t enable me to learn drawing in the traditional sense as I had hoped, and having lost direction decided their offer of helping with the family business would be an interesting path to take.
Life at the hotel proved to be very interesting as the nature of the hospitality trade is so dynamic. The lifestyle inevitably took me out of my comfort zone but at the same time brought me out of my shell. I was called upon when things got too hectic for the front of house staff. Being a bit of a dreamer meant that occasionally I would forget to take orders to the kitchen and then be faced with angry customers an hour later when the food had all gone!
The location of the Hotel is in stark contrast to the pace of a relentless Sunday lunch shift. Walking out of the kitchen door would lead you onto the coastal path and stress calming sea breezes. Within a ten minute walk you would be standing standing on dramatic cliff tops in an ancient and magical landscape.
Within a few years the pub was beginning to get a good reputation for the food which was all due to my father’s background in cookery combined with his creative flair. He had been a chef in London and Canada before teaching catering for many years at Cornwall College. His award winning seafood broth continued to be a firm favourite on the menu until we left.
As the business grew I began to paint again and made use of the free exhibiting space in the bar and restaurant. I began with observational landscapes including one of the Gurnard’s headland itself, apparently named by fishermen after its similarity to the fish of the same name. I was encouraged by the sale of paintings and there was no shortage of good subject matter. This included not only the landscape, but also all the different characters that worked for us, and the people who visited the hotel and restaurant were great sources of inspiration.
One evening my dad called me downstairs when a group of locals were playing cards in the alcove. There was a great atmosphere and I managed to get a “fly on the wall” photograph of them from behind the bar. This was the basis of a painting that became a local favourite called ‘The Card Players’.
A pivotal moment for me was having my painting of Andrew, our chef, exhibited in the BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery. Being selected was a great boost to my confidence and gave me the idea of making a living as a portrait artist. I also had success with a painting of my great grandparents eating their dinner. This is still hung in the Gurnards Head restaurant.
It was becoming apparent to me that following my parents in the hospitality trade was not for me. I had reconnected with my true calling and this time I would not give it up.
Since we sold the hotel and my father and stepmother took their well-earned retirement, my wife (the food photographer Rebecca Bernstein), my daughter and I moved to Bristol in 2010. I have continued to paint focusing primarily on portraiture and exhibit frequently at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ annual show. My career now consists mainly of private commissions alongside the development of my own work, which is currently focused on traditional still life studies of fruit.
Laurence Kell: www.laurencekell.co.uk
Follow Laurence on Twitter: @laurencekell