Growing up in Australia, Sharon Kiernan heard all about her illustrious ancestor in faraway North East England.
Sharon is the great-great-granddaughter of the region’s favourite painter, Ralph Hedley.
Yesterday was the centenary of Hedley’s death, which happened at his home at 19 Belle Grove Terrace in Spital Tongues in Newcastle.
And when Sharon heard that a memorial evensong was to be held for the artist at St Nicholas’s Cathedral in Newcastle, she had to be there.
Sharon, accompanied by her friend Kate Bailey, drove five hours from her home in Inverell in New South Wales to Brisbane for the 20-hour flight to the UK.
She said: “It is my heritage and my ancestry, and I am proud to be here. I had to be here for the celebration of Ralph Hedley’s life. For me it is something heartfelt.“
As she grew up, Sharon would listen to tales about Ralph Hedley from her grandfather Frank, who had left Newcastle in the 1920s for a new life in Australia. The family has two original Hedley paintings - Sanctuary, which features Durham Cathedral, and The Sailor’s Wife, for which Hedley’s wife Sarah modelled.
As well as his prolific output of hundreds of paintings showing scenes from contemporary North East life and also history, Ralph Hedley ran a wood carving workshop in Newcastle.
It provided the carving for the choir stalls, screens and bishop’s throne in the re-ordering of the interior of St Nicholas’s Church after it became a cathedral in 1882.
In 1990 a display of Ralph Hedley’s paintings at the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle broke attendance records for a loan exhibition, and on the first Saturday of a current show of more than 40 of his works at the Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead, the normal visitor flow doubled.
Sharon, who visited the Gateshead exhibition, said of the painter’s immense popularity in the region: “He depicted life as it was in his day. It is a record of history.”
Also at yesterday’s service were Hedley’s great-granddaughters Annabel Herriott, Janet Robson from Ashington in Northumberland with her daughters Jenny and Beth, and Clodagh Brown and her daughter Julia, both from London.
Graphic artist Clodagh, who grew up in Cleadon in South Tyneside and went to St Ann’s High School in South Shields, has been working with Newcastle Hedley expert John Millard to set up a website on the artist, ralphedleyarchive.com
She has also organised an exhibition on Hedley which will be on show at the cathedral until June 23.
Clodagh said of Hedley’s appeal: “It was the quality of his painting and the fact that has painted the people in the streets around him.
“He never painted outside the North East. He was completely loyal to the region and loved its people, rich or poor.
“He always said that there was plenty of good subject matter in the North East, and he proved it. He was really fascinated by the crafts of the region, like the sail maker and boat builder he portrayed, and agricultural crafts.
“His paintings are pictures of the time, a colour version of what was going on around him.”
Pam Walker, events manager at the cathedral, said: “We are very proud of Ralph Hedley’s contribution to the cathedral. He painted the lives of ordinary people and he is enormously popular.”
BELOVED ARTIST Painter Ralph Hedley
He never painted outside the North East. He was completely loyal to it and loved its people