NEW YORK - Abstraction – a collaboration between David Thomson and Sotheby’s Modern & Post-War British Art Department – is currently on view at Sotheby’s New York from 8 to 12 November. They will then travel to London where the sale will be on view at Sotheby’s Bond Street from 6 to 10 December.

This tightly curated sale comprises major examples by five artists: Alan Davie, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon and William Scott. They all had strong links with St Ives, a small Cornish fishing town situated at the westernmost tip of Britain, which for a period of around twenty-five years, from the outbreak of the Second World War through to the mid-1960s was considered as important a centre of avant-garde activity as London.

Patrick Heron’s Atmospheric Strata: February 1958 will be offered in the Abstraction sale on 10 December. Estimate £300,000-500,000.

Since the late-nineteenth century artists have been drawn to the harbour towns of Cornwall, particularly St Ives and Newlyn where they were charmed by picturesque views and the quality of the light. With the arrival of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth prior to the Second World War, a number of leading modernist artists came to St Ives, including Naum Gabo and by 1945 the town had become a vibrant art centre with Nicholson and Hepworth inspiring a younger generation of artists, including Davie, Heron, Hilton, Lanyon and Scott.

St Ives Harbour.

For Lanyon, a native Cornishman, who was born in St Ives, the place, its culture, history and local myths are in the bones of his mature painting. Despite their abstract nature, Lanyon’s paintings remained based on his observation of the local Cornish landscape, becoming abstractions of his total experience of the land, sea and sky seen across both time and distance. Heron spent much of his childhood in Penwith as his father managed Crysede Silks, a textile firm in Cornwall. During the war he returned as a conscientious objector before becoming an assistant to Bernard Leach. In 1955, Heron moved to Cornwall permanently, buying Eagle’s Nest (situated high on the promontory above the wild coast of Zennor) and it is from this time that there is a marked liberation in his use of colour.   Although Scott and Davie never settled in Cornwall, Davie has been a frequent visitor to Cornwall, keeping a studio there since the 1950s. Scott spent six months at Mousehole in 1936 and after the war he would spend several summers there. Both artists’ connections to St Ives forged important friendships: Scott taught at Bath Academy at Corsham with Lanyon and ideas were to travel back and forth between Somerset and Cornwall during this time. Through his friendship with Heron, Hilton first visited Cornwall in 1956.  He was to visit regularly from that time, taking a studio in Newlyn and in 1965 Hilton finally settled permanently at St Just with his wife Rose.

St Ives shore.

Despite the rural location, perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, this artistic community of artists associated with St Ives made a significant contribution to international modernism in the 1950s. As an art critic, Heron was a significant promoter of the St Ives group and became a leading figure in the transatlantic dialogue on abstract art. Through personal contacts they networked with national and international art establishments and were included in important group exhibitions, giving them exposure in Europe and America. Leading contemporary galleries in London, including Waddington Galleries, The Redfern Gallery, Hanover Gallery and Gimpel Fils showcased their works.  Despite the dominance of American painting on the international scene, these artists enjoyed considerable success in New York where leading galleries including Catherine Viviane Gallery and Bertha Schaefer Gallery gave them shows as did leading European galleries including Charles Lienhard, Zurich. 

Roger Hilton’s August 1953 will be offered in the Abstraction sale on 10 December. Estimate £50,000-70,000.

The remote geographical location, during a time when travel was limited, did not deter significant visitors to St Ives in the 1940s and 1950s, including leading abstract expressionist artists Mark Tobey and Mark Rothko, who visited Lanyon with his wife and met several artists from the St Ives community. The notable critic Clement Greenberg stayed with Heron at Eagle’s Nest in 1959 and art dealers Victor Waddington and Bertha Schaeffer were also to visit along with Lillian Somerville and Frances Watson of the British Council who were on the selection committee for the British Pavillion at Venice. In many ways St Ives can be seen as a year-round equivalent to Long Island’s summer rivalry to New York.         

Lunch at the chapel, Kerris, August 1959. Left to right: Mell Rothko, Mark Rothko, Terry Frost, Mary Miles, June Miles, Christine Feiler, Helen Feiler, Anthony Feiler, and Peter Lanyon. Photograph by Paul Feiler. Copyright The Estate of Paul Feiler, Image courtesy of Redfern Gallery, London.