British / Look Back: Art History / Sculpture

Five from St Ives

In the southwest corner of Britain, where the temperatures are mild and the light is clear and good for painting, there is a town called St Ives. Originally a fishing village, the town rose to international fame in the first half of the twentieth century as artists from England and beyond arrived there to work.

Robert Borlase Smart, Morning Light, St Ives, 1922. Oil on canvas, 64 x 105.5 cm, Royal Institute of Cornwall.

Robert Borlase Smart, Morning Light, St Ives, 1922. Oil on canvas, 64 x 105.5 cm, Royal Institute of Cornwall.

Although artists had visited the port town during the 19th century, it was in the 1920’s that St Ives experienced its first surge of aesthetic popularity. In 1920, two potters, Bernard Leach (1887-1979) and Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), built a kiln there.

Bernard Leach, Spherical Vase, c. 1927. Reduced stoneware, 145 x 140 x 140 mm, Tate Britain.

Bernard Leach, Spherical Vase, c. 1927. Reduced stoneware, 145 x 140 x 140 mm, Tate Britain.

A few years later, two young artists, Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Christopher Wood (1900-1930), took a summer holiday there, where they were inspired by the town and the paintings of a local fisherman, Alfred Wallis.

Christopher Wood, A Fishing Boat in Dieppe Harbour, 1929. Oil on canvas, support: 650 x 810 x 19 mm, Tate.

Christopher Wood, A Fishing Boat in Dieppe Harbour, 1929. Oil on canvas, support: 650 x 810 x 19 mm, Tate.

The St. Ives Society of Artists was officially founded in 1927, and over the years attracted a powerful collection of artists including Adrian Stokes (1902-1972), Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), and Terry Frost (1915-2003).

Barbara Hepworth, Sculpture with Colour (Oval Form), Pale Blue and Red, 1943. Painted wood and strings, (BH 119), Private collection.

Barbara Hepworth, Sculpture with Colour (Oval Form), Pale Blue and Red, 1943. Painted wood and strings, (BH 119), Private collection.

By the mid 1940’s there were so many artists working in the area that even looking back, it feels dangerous to generalize too much about what ultimately defined the group. Works from the St Ives colony are figurative, abstract, joyful, dark, painted and sculpted.

But you could say this – as a group, these artists manipulated what had for centuries been accepted as exterior reality. That is to say, they presented their subjects – landscape, people, everyday objects – so that they could be seen in a new light. And to do this, they used the shapes, lines and colours of the land and sea that surrounded them.

Ben Nicholson, Cornish Port, c. 1930. Oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge.

Ben Nicholson, Cornish Port, c. 1930. Oil on card, 21.5 x 35 cm, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge.

It’s difficult to make a list of the most iconic St Ives artists – so many of them were great in their individual way. Here I’ve listed not the most famous artists but five of my favorites. Who are yours?

Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) – Wallis started painting late in life and was self-taught. His paintings play with perspective, and were celebrated by the artists who would live at St Ives over the coming decades. He used a limited palette in depicting mainly scenes of ships and shipwrecks.

Wallis, Two Fishermen in their Boat with One Mast Steeped, n.d. Oil on card, 192 x 226 mm, Kettle's Yard, University of Cambridge.

Wallis, Two Fishermen in their Boat with One Mast Steeped, n.d. Oil on card, 192 x 226 mm, Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge.

Naum Gabo (1890-1977) – Born in Russia, Gabo only lived in St Ives for about six years during World War II. He was a Constructivist and was interested in depicting space without using mass.

Gabo, Linear Construction No. 1, 1942-3. Perspex and nylon, 349 x 349 x 89 mm, Tate.

Gabo, Linear Construction No. 1, 1942-3. Perspex and nylon, 349 x 349 x 89 mm, Tate.

Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham (1912-2004) – Influenced by Gabo’s idea on the depiction of space, Barnes-Graham moved steadily towards abstraction after settling in St Ives for her health. Even while working in geometric abstraction, she looked to the lines created in nature and particularly by the wind and the waves she lived near.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Upper Glacier, 1950. Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9 cm, British Council Collection.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Upper Glacier, 1950. Oil on canvas, 39.4 x 62.9 cm, British Council Collection.

Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) – Lanyon was born in St Ives. His works are often emotional, reflecting both his observation of other artists’ works and his personal experience growing up in the town.

Peter Lanyon, Porthleven, 1951. Oil paint on board, 2445 x 1219 mm, Tate.

Peter Lanyon, Porthleven, 1951. Oil paint on board, 2445 x 1219 mm, Tate.

Patrick Heron (1920-1999) – A writer and critic as well as a painter, Heron published essays on art education and history throughout his career. He painted exuberant abstract canvases, which he used to explore the interactions of colours when placed together.

Peter Heron, Scarlet, Lemon and Ultramarine, 1957. Oil on canvas, 610 x 1829 mm, Tate.

Peter Heron, Scarlet, Lemon and Ultramarine, 1957. Oil on canvas, 610 x 1829 mm, Tate.

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2 thoughts on “Five from St Ives

  1. There is so much about Cornwall that is appealing – for most of its history it was way beyond the limits of so-called civilisation. Wrecking was common and modern tourism makes much of this, and of pirates, though of course they didn’t exist because the Cornish are such good people. Incredible light, dramatic scenery. It was seen as too wild for the artists of earlier times.

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