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.

‘Façade’ (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)

The Synagogues of Dublin:
17, Rathfarnham Road

Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road dates from a meeting in 1936 and first opened in 1953 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

When I was born on Rathfarnham Road, I was born in a house opposite the then Classic Cinema and between the old Terenure Laundry and the new site for Terenure Synagogue.

The synagogue at 32a Rathfarnham Road, Dublin 6, dates back to a meeting held on 26 September 1936 to set up a synagogue in the Rathmines, Rathgar or Terenure area to cater for the young families now living in these suburbs and who found it was too far to walk on Saturdays and Festivals to the synagogues on Adelaide Road and at Greenville Hall on the South Circular Road.

The shul started in rented rooms at No 6 Grosvenor Place, Rathmines, until No 52 Grosvenor Road was bought in April 1940.

On Rosh Hashanah, 4 October 1948, the congregation moved from Rathmines to a Nissen hut in the grounds of ‘Leoville’ on Rathfarnham Road, Terenure. The house had been bought some years earlier on behalf of the congregation by the late Woulfe Freedman and Erwin Goldwater for £1,490.

Building work on the new Terenure Synagogue began in August 1952, and it was completed and dedicated on 30 August 1953.

Stars of David in Terenure Synagogue face onto Rathfarnham Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Some sources say the synagogue was designed in 1950 by the Dublin architect, John Joseph Gerard Devaney. However, Sharman Kadish, in Jewish Heritage in England (2006), agrees with most authorities that it was designed by Wilfrid Cantwell in 1952-1955.

Wilfrid Cantwell (1921-2000) graduated from the School of Architecture, UCD, with his BArch degree in 1944, and was elected a member of the RIAI in 1946. He was President of RIAI in 1966 and 1967. He worked with Michael Scott, alongside Kevin Roche, Kevin Fox and Robin Walker, and worked on Bus Arús. He later worked with JN Kidney before setting up his own practice (1947-1975), where he attained distinction in the area of church architecture, particularly in years immediately after Vatican II.

His two major religious buildings are the Synagogue in Terenure and the Church of the Holy Spirit, Ballycullane, Co Wexford in 1971. His favourite church project was the renovation of the Pugin Chapel in Ushaw College, Durham. In 1985, he was the co-author with Richard Hurley of Contemporary Irish Church Architecture.

From 1976, he specialised as a consultant in church design and in the legal aspects of building. He retired in 1993 and died on 26 December 2000.

Cantwell said his new synagogue in Terenure met the committee’s specifications for a building that would ‘cost less than half the normal place, look as if it cost the full amount and be an example of good modern design.’ It was praised for its ‘original, modern, commanding and attractive design.’

A stained glass window in the synagogue on Rathfarnham Road

The ‘master builder’ of the synagogue was the Dublin timber merchant Sam Noyek, who worked tirelessly for the synagogue all his life. The synagogue was built with a capacity for 600 people.

Nick Harris, in his Dublin’s Little Jerusalem, says most families linked with Terenure Synagogue associate it with the Revd Solly Bernstein and his wife Bertha, affectionately known as Belke; he was born in Dublin, and she was born in Yashenovska, Poland. He taught many bar mitzvah boys their portion of the Law in what was known as BBC – Bernstein’s Bar Mitzvah Class.

The shul was set on fire on Wednesday 9 February 1966. Several Siffrei Torah were destroyed, and the shul itself was very badly damaged. The Nissen hut that had been turned into a function hall was quickly converted back into a shul, and no Shabbat services were missed.

The newly refurbished synagogue was rededicated on Sunday 26 May 1968. Its features include the striking stained-glass windows on the north and south walls by Stanley Tomlin, who began his career in the Harry Clarke Studios in 1932.

The Samuel Taca Hall, endowed by Mrs Fanny Taca in memory of her husband, opened behind the synagogue in the 1980s.

Rabbi Zalman Lent with the Aron haKodesh and Torah scrolls in Terenure Synagogue

At extraordinary meetings of the Terenure and Adelaide Road congregations in January 1999, the two congregations agreed to merge. It was agreed that the Adelaide Road Synagogue would be sold, and that some of the proceeds of the sale would be used to build a new synagogue complex, including a new mikveh and a community centre, on the grounds at Rathfarnham Road.

From then, the Terenure Synagogue hosted the members of the former synagogue on Adelaide Road. This arrangement continued until 15 December 2004, when both congregations held simultaneous extraordinary general meetings and agreed to merge as the new Dublin Hebrew Congregation.

The first council meeting of the new Dublin Hebrew Congregation was held in Terenure on 25 January 2005.

The agreed new synagogue was never built, and Terenure Synagogue remains the last major orthodox synagogue in the Republic of Ireland.

A recent Church of Ireland Interfaith Conference visiting Terenure Synagogue on Rathfarnham Road, Dublin

Tomorrow: 18, Machzikei Hadass, Rathmore Villas, Terenure.

Yesterday: 16, The Progressive Synagogue, Leicester Avenue, Rathgar.