The Artists of St Ives, CornwallThe West Cornwall town of St Ives , until 1877 when the Great Western Railway arrived still an isolated fishing village, is a place of enormous significance in the history of modern British art. Indeed, it has been an influence far further afield, with artists from Europe, America and even Japan drawn to it and to nearby Newlyn . The town’s place in our artistic heritage has surely been cemented for centuries to come by the establishment of a branch of the Tate Gallery there, celebrating in particular those who have been inspired by living and working in the area.
St Ives, close to the southern extreme of the British mainland, offers a quality of light reminiscent of far warmer climes. With its wonderful seascapes and picturesque narrow and steep streets it has provided rich material for artists for centuries: Turner visited in 1811, and Walter Sickert the leading British (via Germany) impressionist and these days candidate for the title of the real Jack the Ripper stayed there at various times too, as did the American artist and wit Whistler.
In the 1880s with the town made more accessible to the outside world by the railways, artists began to set up studios in St Ives: The Borlase Smart John Wells Trust looks after Porthmeor Studios near the beach, where upper floors of fishermen’s net-lofts, warehouses and workshops were converted to harvest the light. Here too can be found the St Ives School of Painting , still active today after more than 70 years contributing to the British art scene.
It was not until the 20th century that St Ives truly blossomed as an artistic colony. As well as the light offered on the South West Coast, low rents and the prospect of warm summers were attractive to artists making their way in the world. Many holidayed there before moving permanently.
The Swedish painter Julius Olsson R.A. established an artists’ school at Porthmeor in 1890, primarily concerned with marine paintings. One of his pupils was Borlase Smart who returned to St Ives in the 1930s, setting up the successor to Olsson’s school in 1938 along with his friend Leonard Fuller. The school they founded still opens its doors on Back Road West to this day to art students of varying ages and abilities.
Before Smart and Fuller arrived there were already plenty of artists dwelling in St Ives: Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada opened The Leach Pottery in 1920, and the refurbished pottery is another one of the artistic pilgrimage sites in St Ives, high up at the edge of the town, at Higher Stennack. The painter Christopher Wood spent much of his brief life there too.
It was the arrival of modern artists such as husband and wife Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth , making their home in the place in 1939, that changed the direction of the artistic output. The Russian modernist Naum Gabo was another adding his weight to that trend. After WWII the long established St Ives Society of Artists was split by the tensions between conservative representational artists and their figurative and abstract brethren, and the Penwith Society broke away, Nicholson, Hepworth, and local-born Peter Lanyon being leading lights in it.
One artist whom it is difficult to fit into either camp was Alfred Wallis , a fisherman and rag-and-bone man turned artist in his later life, though he was championed by the likes of Nicholson. His naive renditions of St Ives scenes capture the port and the streets wonderfully, but sadly he died in penury.
Hepworth was inspired by her domestic surroundings like few artists before or since: the garden of her cottage on Barnoon Hill provided a space to show her larger bronzes and stone carvings. When she died in 1975 her home and garden became The Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden , run by The Tate Gallery. It is not surprising that once the Tate became involved in such a project that a wider endeavour would be discussed and eventually arranged: in 1993 The Tate St Ives opened, again at Porthmeor, providing a marvellous showcase for St Ives art, and that of others too.
Today St Ives is still a thriving artistic enclave, with galleries aplenty showing the work of local painters, potters and sculptors, a place where artistic craft is still appreciated more than hype, shock and marketing. And even if the art does not take your fancy, the surroundings inspiring it are sure to.
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