St Ives in Cornwall romps home as the ideal town where most of us would like to live. ‘Fonly it wasn’t also the most expensive.
Here’s a piece I wrote about the artists’ colony and Number One desirable seaside resort for the recent First Great Western magazine (Sept-Dec 2014).
ST IVES – PORT OF INSPIRATION
Anna Chen on how St Ives came to be one of the most important art communities in the country
It was the sunshine that did it, and not just because it gave you a tan, either. The late Patrick Heron, renowned British painter, claimed that the unique quality of the light in St Ives helped turn a fishing town up the far end of the British Isles both into, not only one of our best-beloved seaside resorts, but also a magnet for some of our finest artists.
The most famous among them included the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, whose studio and sculpture garden you can visit tho this day, and her husband, painted Ben Nicholson.
St Ives sits on a peninsula surrounded on three sides by the Atlantic. The higher than normal level of ultra-violet reflected off the ocean creates a bright, luminous quality that has attracted artists for over two hundred years, ever since 1811, when JMW Turner — acclaimed for his ethereal landscapes — first arrived with his charcoal and water-colours.
St Ives in Turner’s time had grown wealthy as a major fishing port, benefiting from abundant shoals of mackerel, herring and pilchards drawn to the red run-off from the tin-mines, with the pilchards pressed for oil and mostly exported to Italy. You can still see signs of its once-thriving industry today in the fishermen’s nets and brightly coloured buoys in the yard of the Porthmeor Studios, although many of the former pilchard cellars are now holiday homes.
Fashionable British artists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries would have traditionally visited France to paint their favoured French landscapes. But with the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803, they were soon deprived of their annual sojourns, and looking for an alternative to the rugged Brittany coastline, artists turned to the rocky headlands and high cliffs of Cornwall.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge, which spans the River Tamar, connecting Devon with Cornwall, opened in 1859 and flung wide the floodgates for a new generation of British and international artists wanting to follow the great Turner’s footsteps. By the time the Great Western Railway connected St Erth with St Ives on 1st June 1877, artists were flocking to the fishing town. Artists such as Walter Sickert and the American JAM Whistler visited in 1884, drawn to the mild weather, wild landscape and, of course, that extraordinary light.
The arrival of the railway not only bought swathes of artists to the area, but also helped bring new opportunities to the town, which was falling into decline in the second half of the 19th century, due to a collapsing fishing industry. The improved transport routes connected the ailing town directly with London Paddington, opening it up as a tourist resort and an outpost for creative types.
The burgeoning artists colony started taking over the abandoned fish cellars and sail lofts, turning them into studios, with the first ever recorded conversion being a sail-loft on Carncrows Street converted by the Right Honourable Duff Tolamache in 1884. The north-facing Porthmeor Studios in Back Road West, overlooking the beach, were particularly well situated, as the light is evenly dissipated, with none of the harsh distorting shadows of a southerly aspect. More to the pojnt, they enjoy a glorious uninterrupted view of the sea and the setting sun over Clodgy Point.
James Lanham opened the first gallery in St Ives in 1887, and the inaugural School of Painting opened the following year, founded by painters Julius Olsson and Louis Grier. Special trains were laid on to bring painters and audiences to exhibitions, assuredly putting St Ives on the map as an international arts hotspot.
The best-known local artist, Alfred Wallis, was discovered painting in the doorway of his home in Back Road West by artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928. He was a scrap merchant and fisherman who painted straight onto board and bits of metal. They were struck by his unschooled “primitive” naive style and did their best to promote him. Nevertheless, despite their efforts, he sold few paintings in his lifetime and died in the workhouse. His simple grave in Barnoon Cemetary next to Tate St Ives is adorned with ceramic tiles by the potter Bernard Leach.
Leach himself had studied pottery in Japan and brought his techniques to St Ives in 1920 where, with Shoji Hamada, he established the Leach Pottery on the Stennack River. Utilitarian and functional as well as beautiful, his pioneering style earnt him the title “Father of British studio pottery”. He died in 1979, but there remains a working Leach studio and gallery celebrating his life and work, as well as showcasing its produce and training a new generation of potters.
Leach received the Freedom of the Borough of St Ives in 1968, the same year as another giant of British art accepted that very accolade — the Modernist sculptor Barbara Hepworth.
Hepworth moved from London to St Ives with her husband Ben Nicholson and their triplets at the outbreak of the Second World War. She lived in the town until her death in 1975, and was the centre of an influential group of abstract artists, including Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham, Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Patrick Heron and sculptor Nuam Gabo. Their exciting and experimental movement, while on the whole largely abstract, still remained rooted in nature, thus giving it a broad appeal.
With a resident art community now in place, other artists were encouraged to visit the town. The Irish painter Francis Bacon worked in studio 3 in Porthmeor Studios between September 1959 and January 1960, also visited for three days in 1959. Other artists include Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, Paul Feiller and Sandra Blow who worked from Porthmeor Studios from 1994 and then Bullens Court.
In 1993, the Tate St Ives gallery opened to the public, sealing the town’s reputation as a world class centre for art. The gallery continues to have an extensive programme of exhibitions and events, and for the next seven months will be home to some of the best photography from the Tate collection in a new exhibition entitled The Modern Lens: International Photography and the Tate Collection.
The Tate also runs the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Scupture Garden (her former home and studio) at the Trenwyn Studio, as well as offering a multimedia Ben Nicholson tour.
For over 200 years, St Ives has been attracting some of the best British and international artists to its rocky shores. Drawn to the unique quality of its light, painters and sculptors settled in the town where they created and exhibited theirnwork while raising families and contributing to the community. They made full use of everything the area had to offer, and while there, undoubtedly got a bit of a tan too.
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ARTISTS: Alfred Wallis, Borlase Smart, Patrick Heron (worked at Studio 5, Porthmeor Studios), Francis Bacon, Sandra Blow, Patrick Hughes, Naum Gabo, Turner, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, John Wells (discovered Alfred Wallis), Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Bryan Wynter, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Roy Walker. And living: Anthony Frost, Bob Devereux, Keir Williamson, Breon O’Casey, Zoe Eaton, Clare Wardman, Roy Ray, Sax Impey.
Artist Bob Devereux helped start the St Ives Arts Festival some thirty years ago and keeps the tradition alive with the May Litarary Festival which takes place for a week in May.
Art classes can be found at the St Ives School of Painting as well as the Bernard Leach pottery. There’s always somthing for children at Tate St Ives.
POTTERY: Aside from the Leach Pottery, the best ceramics shop outside London has to be St Ives Ceramics in Fish Street which carries not only contemporaty work, but also pieces by Leach and his great friend Hamada Shoji, as well as his late widow, Janet. Another pottery well worth visiting is the Gaolyard where you can watch the nine resident potters working.
Patrick Heron occupied Studio 5 Porthmeor Studios. He designed scarves form the age of 14 for his father’s textile factory in St Ives. Lived in St Andrew’s Street and then Eagles Nest on the road to Zennor. Designed the stained glass window on the ground floor of Tate St Ives: Window For Tate Gallery St Ives 1992–3
Virginia Woolf wrote her novel To The Lighthouse inspired by Godrevy Lighthouse. The Stephens family spent summers at Talland House in Talland Road until Virginia was 13 years old.
St Ives School of Painting
Learn to draw and paint or just keep your hand in at St Ives’s oldest art school, established in 1938.
Porthmeor Studios, St Ives, Cornwall
t: 01736 797180
The Leach Pottery
Beginners and professionals can take short courses in throwing clay throughout the year.
Higher Stennack, St Ives TR26 2HE
Tel: 01736 799703
Back Road Artworks
Back Road East
Knit One Weave One
Make an eye-popping fabric picture or a vibrant felt hat with Jo McIntosh’s textile art classes.
St Ives Arts Club
As well as holding exhibitions and staging performances in their 120-year old theatre, the club also hosts art classes. Check the website for more info.