St Ives, a Cornish harbour town at the far south-westerly tip of England, has legendary status in the context of 20th Century British Art. Like the Cote d’Azur to Paris, Long Island to Manhattan, St Ives was a haven from the cacophony of London a beacon of light, colour and carefree creativity.
In the summer of 1928 three of the most avant-garde artists of their generation, Winifred Nicholson, her husband Ben and their close friend Christopher (Kit) Wood, moved down to Cornwall, staying first at Feock before St Ives. The change of pace, landscape and sea air inspired their best work of the period. The three had, earlier that year, worked together at the Nicholsons’ house in Cumberland where 'inspiration ran high and flew backwards and forwards from one to the other’ (Winifred Nicholson, 'Blue Was His Colour', Unknown Colour, Faber & Faber, London, 1987, p.8). They painted with stylized naivety, reducing what they saw around them to their most fundamental elements, very much in keeping with Picasso’s 1920s classicism just the other side of the Channel and a so-called return to innocence after the devastation of World War I. That August of 1928, Ben and Kit stumbled across the retired mariner Alfred Wallis and were mesmerised by his raw, untutored pictures of boats and harbours which encapsulated everything the three had been working towards.
Winifred’s painting of St Ives synthesizes all of this, deftly portraying the sweeping topography of the harbour with a few confident impasto strokes and capturing the invigorating Cornish palette of blue and green hues. But the composition is far more than just a fleeting impression of a sleepy seaside town – the painting exemplifies the very essence of what it was to be a contemporary artist during the 1920s: to paint at the far flung edge of the country and develop a visual vocabulary that is emblematic of the changing tide after the war. Just over 10 years later, Ben Nicholson would leave war torn London with his second wife Barbara Hepworth literally moving the epicentre of avant-garde Britain to St Ives.
It is significant that the first owner of the present work was Sir Edward (Eddie) Marsh (1872-1953), one of the most important patrons of Contemporary Art in Britain during the first half of the 20th Century. An eminent civil servant and Private Secretary to Sir Winston Churchill for over 20 years, Marsh was also Chairman of the Contemporary Art Society for the last 15 years of his life and a major supporter of artists such as Stanley Spencer, Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland.
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