Since the end of the nineteenth century, the clarity of light unique to St Ives and the romantic coastal scenery with its gigantic seas, rugged cliffs and wild moorland has seduced artists from around the world. The town itself, with its picturesque harbour and charismatic fisher folk, offered a wealth of subject material.
Visiting in 1811 and again in 1813, J M W Turner was among the earliest artists to spend time in St Ives, making a panoramic sketch of the town, harbour and coast.
As painting in the open air became increasingly popular during the second half of the nineteenth century, artists started to travel to rural areas throughout Europe and set up colonies. St Ives’ reputation as an ideal place for the marine painter soon grew: its geographical position – far south and far west – meant a good balance of daylight hours and a mild climate, allowing artists to paint outdoors for most of the year.
The arrival of the railway in 1877 made St Ives more accessible and meant that paintings could be transported back to exhibitions in London; the town became a more practical place for artists to take residence. Over the following years, whole carriages would be hired as artists sent their paintings to the Royal Academy summer exhibition and other annual exhibitions across the continent.
By the 1880s, the pilchard industry was in decline and the net lofts and workshops of the fishermen became vacant. Artists arriving in St Ives soon started to convert them into studios; the first record of a studio dates back to 1885 when the Right Honourable Duff Tollemach moved into an old sail loft in Carncows Street, Downalong. Studios located near Porthmeor provided a rare opportunity to study rough seas from the comfort of inside, while studios facing the harbour allowed artists to observe uninterrupted views of the fishermen and harbour life.
The majority of the artists arriving in St Ives were educated and middle-class, many well connected to prominent artists teaching in London institutions. In the winter of 1883/4 Whistler arrived with his two students, English impressionist Walter Sickert and Australian-born painter Mortimer Mempes, to prepare a series of pictures for an exhibition on Bond Street. Mempes later wrote, ‘Whistler himself loved St Ives: the boats, the sea, the fishermen – all fascinated him … St Ives he revelled in … he did much good work there.’ In 1887 Swedish artist Anders Zorn visited the town and today his painting of St Ives harbour in twilight, hangs in the Louvre.
In 1887, James Lanham – a merchant who sold artists materials – opened the first gallery in his store and in the following year the first school of painting was opened in the Porthmeor Studios by Louis Greer and Julius Olsson, both prominent figures among the early artists. Olsson would soon become the leading seascape painter of his generation and the School would attract students from all over the world who came to study marine painting.
In 1890 the St Ives Art Club was founded by Louis Greer. The club gained a worldwide reputation and provided a social centre for an arts community which included musicians and writers as well as artists.
During the following decade St Ives evolved into a thriving artists’ colony and the town become increasingly cosmopolitan with artists from countries such as France, Finland, New Zealand and the United States visiting regularly.
In 1920 Bernard Leach, who would become a leader in the world of potters and make St Ives internationally famous, arrived with the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada and built Europe’s first oriental climbing kiln at Higher Stennack. Together they joined the ceramic traditions and techniques of the West and East, creating a modern vision and significantly influencing the development of the twentieth-century studio pottery movement.
In 1927, after marine artist Commander George Fagan Bradshaw suggested the creation of a society which would raise standards of the colony and hold exhibitions of works which ‘mattered’, the St Ives Society of Artists was formed under the presidency of Moffat Lindner. Members included many Royal Academicians, such as: the leader of the Newlyn School, Stanhope Forbes, Lamorna Birch, Julius Olsson, Adrian Stokes, Dame Laura Knight, Sir Alfred Munnings and Sir Stanley Spencer.
Considered a key moment in the development of modern painting in England, in 1928 Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood discovered the paintings of Alfred Wallis in St Ives. Initially a fisherman and rag and bone merchant, after his wife died Wallis began to paint without any tuition. Nicholson admired Wallis’ ‘primitive’ authenticity, his use of unconventional materials and how his images materialised from a combination of memory and experience. Despite his discovery by Nicholson and Wood, Wallis was never accepted by the majority of St Ives artists. He died unaware that he would become an iconic figure for artists of the ‘St Ives School’ who aspired to achieve a similar authenticity in their own work, and that his paintings would someday sell for large sums of money.
In 1930, Moffatt Linder purchased the Porthmeor studios after they were put up for sale preventing them from being turned into shops. Several years later, during the spring of 1938, Borlase Smart and Leonard Fuller opened the St. Ives School of Painting within the studio complex. In the same year the Royal Academy accepted 80 paintings by St Ives artists, 48 of which were hung in the most prestigious viewing position on the line.
At the outbreak of the Second World War, the sculptress Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson left London and escaped to St Ives with encouragement from their friend Adrian Stokes – an art critic who lived in Carbis Bay. They were followed by their friends Naum and Miriam Gabo. And so it happened that three leading practitioners of international abstract or ‘constructive’ art came to be living in the remote coastal town of St Ives.
The arrival of this generation of artists, who had lived and worked among the avant-garde European artists and whose work pursued abstraction, standing apart from strictly visual representations of scenery, brought new vigor to the town. St Ives-born artist Peter Lanyon received lessons in drawing and painting from Nicholson which would change his style towards abstraction and their influences soon outreached St Ives.
The Cornish town, over 300 miles from London, was becoming an increasingly popular and exciting destination for the artist.
Following the Second World War, the established group of painters, sculptors and potters in St Ives and their growing reputation attracted a succession of younger artists. This younger generation formed the new school of abstract artists for which St Ives would become famous and soon established the town as an important artistic centre for the avant-garde. Among the newcomers were: John Wells, Patrick Heron, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Terry Frost, Sven Berlin, Denis Mitchell, Roger Hilton, Karle Wesche, Paul Feiler, Bryan Wynter and Peter Lanyon – the only artist born locally.
In 1946, Lanyon, Wells and Berlin set up the Crypt group, in the process challenging the authority of the St Ives Society of Artists. This group of younger artists included Bryan Wynter and Guido Morris. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Kit Baker, David Haughton, Adrian Ryan and Patrick Heron also exhibited with the group. Some of the most progressive and experimental art in Britain at the time featured in these exhibitions, held in the crypt beneath the St Ives Society of Artists gallery in the Mariner’s Church.
In 1949 seventeen artists, including Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, and Peter Lanyon, resigned from the St Ives Society of Artists following a divide between the more progressive and the more conservative members. Three days later those that had resigned, among others, founded ‘The Penwith Society of Artists in Cornwall’, in memory of Borlase Smart who had died two years earlier. This new society embraced the modernists. Both societies still operate today.
In the 1950s these artists associated with St Ives gained international recognition for their nature-based approach to abstraction. St Ives’ status as a modern art centre grew and the British Council decided to promote St Ives internationally. In 1950 Hepworth represented Britain at the Venice Bienalle, followed by Nicholson in 1954. The presence of Frost, Lanyon, Heron and Wynter brought more artists to the town, including Karl Weshcke, Treveor Bell, Brian Wall and Sandra Blow. During this time artists of international renown, including Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon, continued to travel to St Ives.
Enticed by St Ives’ Bohemian reputation, in the late 1950s and early 60s, a number of poets, designers and writers gravitated towards the area. During this time many artists took drugs as means to unleash their creativity and a heavy drinking culture evolved.
While St Ives’ art became known as a European form of abstraction attached to nature, American abstract painting had started to dominate the international scene. Several St Ives artists made links with America, including Lanyon and Heron who both successfully exhibited in New York: Lanyon in 1957 and Heron in 1960. During this time the famous New York critic Clement Greenberg, who played a significant part in establishing abstract expressionism in the modern age, visited St Ives.
For many the deaths of three of the colonies foremost artists in 1975 are considered as the symbolic end of the ‘St Ives School’ era: the deaths of Wynter and Hilton were followed by Hepworth who died tragically in a fire at her studio in May. At this time abstraction was considered by critical opinion as a form weakened by references to nature, conflicting with the St Ives artists’ attachment to nature and abstraction. The rise of Pop Art had also deflected critical attention away from the town.
The opening of Tate St Ives in June 1993, where the work of the artists of the 50s and 60s is continually exhibited in a series of changing shows, renewed interest in St Ives’ artists’ colony.
Widely considered to be one of the most important art centres in Britain after London, today artists, sculptors and craftspeople continue to be drawn to the magic of St Ives. The town has remained a home to a community of artists and the cobbled streets thrive with acclaimed galleries exhibiting an array of traditional and contemporary artwork, craft workshops and working artist’s studios.
Here are a few of the galleries you may come across as you explore St Ives:
Tate St Ives
Opened in 1993, in recognition of St Ives’ significant presence in the art world, today the Tate St Ives features exhibitions of the modern St Ives School of painters alongside a colourful array of British and international modern and contemporary art.
The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden
Set within the beautiful home and garden where Barbara Hepworth used to live and work, the Barbara Hepworth Museum contains the largest collection of the 20th century sculptor’s works.
Amongst the working pottery studios, where the internationally famous ceramicist Bernard Leach used to work and teach, an exhibition space showcases the work of national and international potters.
Millennium, St. Ives is widely acknowledged to be the premier gallery in the South West with an International reputation for the work on show.
Located in two separate spaces in St Ives, the gallery hosts a quarterly exhibition programme of original artworks by leading and emerging St Ives and British artists.
St Ives Society of Artists
In the light and airy space of the former Mariners church, St Ives Society of Artists exhibits a diverse mix of contemporary visual art work by both its members and invited artists.
Belgrave Gallery St Ives
A sister gallery to the Belgrave Gallery (est. London), Belgrave St Ives exhibits a collection of Modern British and Contemporary Art, including Urban Art, with regular exhibitions of work created by artists associated with the St Ives Modern Period.
The New Craftsman is the oldest established Art Gallery and Craft shop in St Ives