On the edge of Porthmeor Beach, this atmospheric, Grade II listed building, has been an inspiring workspace for artists for over a century. Today, the School of Painting operates out of two of the studios which are managed by the John Wells Borlase Smart Trust.
Three of the Porthmeor studios (Studios 5, 9 and 11) are used at times for the Porthmeor Artists Residency Programme, Tate St Ives Artists Programme and the Falmouth University Transitions Programme. The remaining studios are rented out to local and national artists. Meanwhile, twelve boats continue to work out of the fishermen’s cellars lying beneath the studios.
To trace the start of what is now the oldest studio complex in the country, we travel back to 1801 when spreading sands threatened to submerge St Ives and a wall was built to protect the town. In 1814, fishermen used the wall running along Porthmeor beach as a foundation to erect their cellars, salt houses and net lofts.
Their construction was a fascinating fusion of masonry; including the earliest use of mass concrete in Britain, recycled ship timber and recycled pipes from old mine shafts. For the next 100 years, St Ives was the centre of the pilchard industry with the Porthmeor cellars and lofts used by the fishermen to sort their catches and store their boats and nets.
In the 1880s, artists began arriving, attracted by the extraordinary quality of light and the beauty of St Ives. Working alongside the fisherman, they used the north-facing lofts as studios and started to build new studios on top of the fishermen’s cellars.
Over the following years, the Porthmeor Studios became an inspiring workplace and exhibition space for internationally acclaimed artists, including some of the big names of 20th Century British painting, such as: Julius Olsson, Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon, Patrick Heron and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Today their paint marks still decorate the studio walls where important pieces of work were created.
In 1948, after the death of their owner, painter Moffat Lindner, the Porthmeor studios and fishermen’s cellars were put up for sale. After much fundraising and supported by an interest free loan from the Arts Council, the studios were secured in the name of The Borlase Smart Memorial Trust, Smart having died the previous year.
In 2010, The Borlase Smart John Wells Trust headed a £4 million renovation, supported with public funding by Arts Council England, to renovate and refurbish the building. Exposure to the wild Atlantic weather and shifting sands for over 200 years, had made the studios fragile and in desperate need of repair.
Overlooked by award-winning architects Long & Kentish, the sensitive renovations of the Grade II listed building have ensured that the features of its important heritage are not lost, while providing a facelift which enables the unique complex to move into the future as a successful and functioning workplace for both the artists and the fishermen.
Today, more studio space has been provided by the division of the old studios; floor length windows look out over the plane of sand to the rolling waves; and refurbished skylights bask the studios in natural light. A new lift has improved access, corridors have been revamped with panels of Cornish pine and an exhibition space for the public has been created.
The culture and tradition of St Ives is characterised by the Porthmeor Studio complex which has continued the relationship between the town, the artists and the fishermen, and ensured that it carries on into the future years.