Michael Bird: Destination St Ives

It was seemingly no more than a small fishing village in the far south-west of England, a tourist haunt with some pretty beaches.

But there was no institutional culture, and no fame as a centre for ideas. What, then, made St Ives such an extraordinary magnet for modern artists and art?

In the second talk of the Art at Saïd Business School series, author and art historian Michael Bird introduced the work of a succession of artists who were associated with St Ives in Cornwall – bringing, as he said, ‘a little ocean sound and vision’ into a lecture theatre in the city that is about as far as you can get from the sea in England.

One of the most remarkable things about St Ives, he said, was that if you took a map of the world and plotted all of the artistic journeys that have converged there – from as far away as the US, Canada, Japan – you would not find another point in the British Isles apart from London where there were so many artistic trajectories coming together. These were not just people who wanted to paint the picturesque Cornish landscape but experimental, international modern artists.

The St Ives story started at the end of nineteenth century when ‘the first wave of art colonists washed up in Cornwall’. These were led by the celebrated marine artist Julius Ollson, who came from London and set up a teaching studio on Porthmeor Beach, where a local entrepreneur had built a series of studios. Ollson’s paintings were particularly popular with buyers in London and the great industrial cities - perhaps, as Bird suggested, because people living in increasingly densely populated urban environments loved to dream of the unspoilt countryside.

Artists too came to Cornwall for a change in light and landscape. Walter Sickert, for example, painted a local family in the sun on Porthmeor Beach - a far cry from his usual grimy subjects in the lowlife of London.  

Ben Nicholson and Kit Wood visited St Ives in the 1920s, passing the cottage of local painter Alfred Wallis, an ex-sailor and rag-and-bone man who had taken up painting in his 70s. They were very taken with his ‘naïve’ style, and Bird showed how this had influenced Wood’s own work – while regretting the rather ‘colonial’ mentality which led the metropolitan artists to claim that they had ‘discovered’ Wallis.

In fact, St Ives combined an ‘extreme insularity’ with a surprisingly international outlook. ‘People brought up [there] might go to Newfoundland or Brittany, but would never go 10 miles down the coast to Penzance,’ said Bird. The steamship Alba, wrecked off Porthmeor beach and painted by Wallis, was carrying coal from Wales to Mussolini’s Italy, for example. There were big international currents converging on the wreck that Wallis painted.

And in 1939 those currents brought more artists to St Ives as Ben Nicholson, together with pioneering sculptor Barbara Hepworth and their three children, left London to sit out the Second World War in Cornwall. They joined the Japanese-trained potter Bernard Leach, who was already an international draw, Naum Gabo, the Russian sculptor, and businesses such as Cresta Silks, an art silk-printing business. 

They were living near to each other, working and making contact with each other, and clearly influencing each other. Bird showed how many different approaches to the same landscape ‘rhymed’, and how through the abstract geometric movement, part of 1930s idealism and beliefs, they all influenced each other.

After the war, their reputations ensured that they were joined by a new generation of young people who had spent six years fighting or involved with the war. These included artists such as Peter Lanyon and Bryan Wynter, who had been a conscientious objector and spent the war looking after monkeys for a zoologist in Oxford; Terry Frost, who had learnt to paint while a Prisoner of War; and Patrick Heron.  

Once again, this new influx of artists meant that the same place was once again being seen differently, through different eyes. They also brought new, long-distance connections, with influences coming from New York and other centres of art and literature.

Eventually, the centre of gravity of modern art shifted towards London. But St Ives continues to be one of the most important art centres in Britain after London, and the influence of the St Ives group of artists is still felt around the world. Indeed, Patrick Heron wrote in his obituary of Ben Nicholson that there is not a single cooker that does not owe something to Nicholson.

It is also, Bird stressed, ‘The only place in the world where a woman artist has been at the top of the pile. Barbara Hepworth is acknowledged as the leading artist in St Ives: I can’t think of any other places where the art pyramid has worked this way.’

Michael Bird on St Ives