The St Ives School was a group of artists working in the early 20th century. This small fishing town in West Cornwall captured the imagination of the artists and writers, with many of the inhabitants flocking to the coastal town to immerse themselves in the surrounding dramatic landscapes, and the ever-changing light of this seaside enclave. St Ives quickly became a community of revolutionary thinkers making significant contributions to the story of British Modernism.
The Key Players
After her first marriage to the painter John Skeaping, Barbara Hepworth married Ben Nicholson in 1938, after his divorce from Winifred Nicholson. Hepworth and Nicholson made extensive visits to Cornwall and further afield in Europe. Hepworth visited the studios of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and Jean Arp, and became acquainted with the artists Georges Braque and Piet Mondrian. These visit were hugely influential and Hepworth took back many radical ideas and techniques to her studio in Cornwall, changing the course of her sculptural practice.
Ben Nicholson had his beach-front studio at Porthmeor, and was joined in the complex by various artists over the years; Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham all worked here, and keen to escape the distractions of London when preparing for his first solo exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery, Francis Bacon took over studio 3 for six months in 1959, with Terry Frost in the neighbouring studio.
In a largely male-dominated scene, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was a hugely significant character in the St Ives story. Born in St Andrews in 1912 and she relocated to St Ives in 1940 where shortly after the outbreak of the second world war, many other artists had already settled. A founder member of the Penwith Society of Arts, Barns-Graham's abstract landscapes are important examples of the visual language she and her contemporaries such as William Scott and Roger Hilton pioneered.
Alongside artists working in painting and sculpture, Bernard Leach founded his pottery in 1920 and was responsible for producing ground-breaking ceramics. Having spent much of his early life in Hong Kong and Japan, Leach combined an interest in Eastern philosophy and traditional pottery, with an education from the Slade School of Art in London. Settling in St Ives in with his wife in 1920, Leach and his friend Shōji Hamada founded the pottery studio soon after. Leach went on to pioneer an aethetic that was closely aligned with the ethos of other artists using St Ives as the centre for their creative experimentation. To this day, Leach is considered one of the most influential figures in British ceramics, with many famous potters training under him at the Leach Pottery.
Whilst many of the artists living in working in St Ives were breaking new ground in British and European modernism, stylistically, each each artist concentrated their research and practice in very different areas: Barbara Hepworth pushed her sculptural techniques to new heights, receiving global critical acclaim and mounting career-defining exhibitions at the Venice Biennale, a commission for the United Nations building in New York and the Hakone Open-Air Museum in Japan in 1970.
Many European and American artists visited St Ives, once word had spread about this creative hub nestled on the rural English coast. Although the town was relatively small, the ideas coming out of St Ives were anything but, and some of the most ambitious advances in art history originated in the town. Parallels can be drawn between the abstract landscapes produced by the Lanyon and Heron and those of the American artist Sam Francis and French Nicolas de Staël, who were exploring similar subject matters; and the Abstract Expressionist painter Mark Rothko came to visit St Ives in 1958 as a guest of Paul Feiler, so an exchange of ideas was an inevitable outcome of their friendship.
Though situated in rural West Cornwall, the St Ives artists were very much included in the global conversation on Modernism and abstraction. The De Stijl painter Marlow Moss, who had studied in Paris under Fernand Léger lived in nearby Lamorna, and the Russian-born Naum Gabo — a close friend of Hepworth and Nicholson — introduced the artists in St Ives to his geometric and kinetic sculpture, as he continued to build on the Constructivist principles he had explored prior to his arrival in St Ives.
Exploration and Discovery
“I'm interested in locating the holy grail of the minimum means to express the most complex ideas.”
— Ben Nicholson
"It is impossible for me to make a painting which has no reference to the powerful environment in which I live."
— Peter Lanyon
Light and Landscape
The soft light reflected off the turquoise water that surrounds the town has long drawn artists and holiday makers alike. The terrain in the area creates a microclimate in St Ives — and the surrounding beaches and moorland at Gwithian, Zennor, and Cape Cornwall. Much has been made of the particular quality of light in the town that has captivated artists for centuries, and continues to inspire a thriving artistic community to this day. Though based in Scotland on the Isle of Skye, Virgina Woolf’s 1927 novel To The Lighthouse was inspired by her enduring relationship with St Ives, where her family had holidayed since she was a child. The view from her window was of Godrevy Lighthouse and the motifs of the Cornish coast appeared in many of her books.
"Why am I so incredibly and incurably romantic about Cornwall? One’s past, I suppose; I see children running in the garden … The sound of the sea at night … almost forty years of life, all built on that, permeated by that: so much I could never explain."
— Virginia Woolf, 1921.
In 1993, Tate St Ives opened its doors to showcase works in the Tate collection by artists from the area, and to acknowledge the town's contribution to the art world. Having taken over responsibility for the Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Museum and Garden several years earlier, the gallery quickly became an established fixture on the must-visit list for art lovers from around the world. As perhaps the most famous of the St Ives artists, Hepworth has not only been honoured in her adopted Cornish home, but with the opening of The Hepworth, Wakefield in the artist’s hometown in 2011. The gallery was named Art Fund Museum of the Year in 2017.
Los Angeles-based painter Danny Fox, who's 2016 exhibition Adder Among Choughs was held at Sotheby's S|2 Gallery in Los Angeles, has spoken of the influence of Alfred Wallis on his work. Fox grew up in St Ives and lived opposite Wallis' cottage as a child. Self-taught Wallis' naive style has come to exemplify the charm of the St Ives aesthetic; paintings of fishing boats in the harbour and traditional Cornish cottages lined up in tightly packed compositions, the picture plane sometimes flattened out to include full impressions of the town, from one vantage point. Many of Wallis' vistas can still be recognised in the town. The Leach Pottery can still be visited, as can Porthmeor studios, which still function as studios today with artists such as Linder Sterling and Lucy Stein undertaking residencies. It can be argued that St Ives was as significant in the story of British Modernism as London.
Naum Gabo's work can be seen in Signals at Sotheby's S|2 Gallery in London until 13 July 2018.
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