16 October 2019

Why the soft light at
St Ives continues to
attract creative artists

The soft light at St Ives has long drawn artists to the coastal town in Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on images for full-screen resolution)

Patrick Comerford

The soft light reflected off the turquoise water that surrounds St Ives has long drawn artists and holiday makers to this coastal town in Cornwall, with its micro-climate, many beaches and the surrounding moorland.

While I was in St Ives last week I experienced the particular quality of light that has captivated artists for centuries and how St Ives continues to inspire a thriving artistic community.

Some have said that the history of St Ives can be written as an account of the many artists who came and went in this small town, who knew whom, who drank where, and who showed at this gallery or that.

Although Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse (1927) is set on the Isle of Skye, she was inspired by St Ives, where she had gone on holidays since her childhood. She asked in 1921: ‘Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain.’

In the decades leading up to World War II, St Ives become home to some of the world’s leading modern artists. They included some of the leading modern artists of their time, and they represented Britain’s contribution to an international search for an art that respected modernism’s abstract values and was suited to the post-war, post-Holocaust world.

St Ives provided a safe haven where the values of international modernism might be protected. The critic Lawrence Alloway said the post-war generation of artists ‘could neither start again, nor stay as it was, as if nothing had happened.’ It was a generation ‘torn by conflicts of pre-war formality and post-war directness.’

The art of St Ives was set apart from the neo-romanticism of Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland that had become the dominant form of modern art in 1940s Britain.

The Penwith Gallery in St Ives (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The St Ives phenomenon started with the migration there at the beginning of World War II of Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. The painter Alfred Wallis and the potter Bernard Leach were at also the heart of this group of artists.

Patrick Heron referred those artists who developed their careers after the war as the ‘middle generation,’ for they were in the middle between the pre-war modernists and younger painters who were influenced by American abstract expressionists.

The most internationally artist working in St Ives at this time was by Barbara Hepworth, a sculptor of the older generation. In the early 1960s, she returned to some of her earlier ideas, realising realised that the ideals of the 1930s still had value. It was, after all, veterans of the ideological battles of the 1930s who founded the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and other peace organisations.

Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson made extensive visits to Cornwall and further afield in Europe. She visited the studios of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Jean Arp, and became acquainted with the artists Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian. These visits were hugely influential, and Barbara Hepworth took back many radical ideas and techniques to her studio in Cornwall, changing the course of her sculptural practice.

Ben Nicholson had his beach-front studio at Porthmeor, and over the years he and Barbara Hepworth were joined at St Ives by other artists. Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham all worked there, and Francis Bacon took over Studio 3 for six months in 1959, with Terry Frost in the neighbouring studio.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, a significant figure in the St Ives story, moved to St Ives in 1940. Her abstract landscapes are important examples of the visual language she pioneered alongside artists such as William Scott and Roger Hilton.

Bernard Leach had already settled in St Ives in 1920, and had founded his pottery with his Japanese friend Shoji Hamada. Leach remains one of the most influential figures in British ceramics.

When word spread about this creative hub on the Cornish coast, many European and American artists visited St Ives.

The Penwith Society of Arts was formed at a meeting in the Castle Inn 70 years ago in 1949 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Penwith Society of Arts was formed in St Ives in early 1949 by abstract artists who broke away from the more conservative St Ives Society of Artists. After a town meeting in the Castle Inn, a dissident group set up shop in Fore Street, St Ives, 70 years ago in 1949.

The new society was originally led by Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, with members of the Crypt Group of the St Ives Society, including Peter Lanyon and Sven Berlin. Other early members included Leonard Fuller, Isobel Heath, Alexander Mackenzie, John Wells, Bryan Wynter, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, David Haughton, Denis Mitchell, and the printer Guido Morris. Herbert Read was invited to become the first president and Henry Moore was an honorary member.

After this acrimonious split, the new group bought fishing lofts along Porthmeor Beach to use as artists’ studios. Barbara Hepworth raised funds to convert adjacent buildings into studios for craft and sculpture as well as painting, and the project expanded further at Back Road in St Ives.

I spent some time last week in the Penwith Gallery, the home of the Penwith Society of Arts. The gallery is a remarkable complex of buildings, with three public galleries, a sculpture courtyard, a print workshop, a shop and archives. This allows for a varied and interesting series of changing exhibitions throughout the year.

‘Fa├žade’ (edition of 3), bronze, by Philip Wakeham, in the Studio Gallery in in the Penwith Gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The current exhibition in the Main Gallery, the Members’ Autumn Exhibition, opened on 30 August and continues until 2 November. A separate exhibition in the Studio Gallery includes sculptures by Philip Wakeham and etchings by Sally Spens.

Philip Wakeham and Sally Spens both work from a foundation of drawing and regard the manual transformation of materials as an essential part of the creative process. Philip Wakeham works exclusively in bronze, which he learnt to cast at the Royal Academy; Sally Spens studied at Goldsmiths and now works predominantly with copper plate etching.

Philip Wakeham’s sculpture is infused with the poetry of human imagination and expression. He sculpts from life in clay, capturing the subtle realities, before casting in bronze. Seemingly disparate natural and man-made elements combine to produce resonant three-dimensional images linked by the human form.

Philip Wakeham says: ‘I believe it is the job of the artist to produce symbols of non-verbal understanding, the visual has a direct path to our minds and hearts.’

‘The Architect,’ bronze, by Philip Wakeham, in the Studio Gallery in in the Penwith Gallery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

In her exhibits, Saly Spens looks at Venice as a city of artisans, from the viewpoint of her background in the applied arts. Thinking about the way that equivalent imagery is used in design for theatre and the relationship between nature and artistry, labour and extravagance. Her etchings seek to link ideas with images that give a sense of hand and eye in the history of Venice.

With exhibitions such as these, the Penwith Gallery continues to be at the forefront of presenting contemporary work of quality. The Penwith Society of Arts retains a unique place in British art history.

St Ives continues to inspire a thriving artistic community (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019; click on images for full-screen resolution)

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