Michael Bird discusses the unique position of the artists’ colony of St Ives within the history of modernist visual art in Britain. To coincide with several major exhibitions of St Ives artists’ work this summer Lund Humphries is offering special discounts on a wide range of publications on artists linked to this important location. For more details see www.lundhumphries.com/summerofstives
‘They talk about artists being attracted to St Ives because of the light,’ observed Breon O’Casey, though in his view ‘That’s all balls.’
What lured O’Casey to St Ives in 1959, and what kept him there, was ‘camaraderie’, the ‘relief of mingling with other crazy artists’. There were plenty of them. From the 1880s they’d arrived in St Ives, settling or passing through, from all over Britain, not to mention America, Australia, Europe and Japan.
Some artists shared a way of working and a set of ambitions. But if you took a sample from each decade between 1880 and the present, you’d find enormous divergence too. Impressionistic marine painters, Constructivists, Neo-Romantics and Abstract Expressionists; painters, stonecarvers, assemblage-makers and performance artists.
Imagine every one of these personal, artistic and geographical trajectories as a single line, all intersecting in west Cornwall, with the tightest cluster centred on St Ives. Mapped over 135 years, the only other places you’d find a convergence of this kind of density and outward extension would be international cities. Other rural art colonies, like Pont Aven in Brittany or Worpswede in Germany, had their moment. But nowhere else did that moment last as long as in St Ives, or involve a cast of so many hundreds.
Take a closer look, and the St Ives phenomenon becomes stranger still. Before World War II no one could have guessed that a splinter group of star international modernists would embed itself in this unlikely setting. Once the war was over, Naum Gabo left for the USA, but Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth – who could easily have returned to London – stayed put. Younger artists, like Margaret Mellis and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, were drawn into their orbit.
Others turned up, desperate to make a fresh start after the war, with completely different ideas and expectations. Art had kept Terry Frost sane as a POW; he just wanted to find a place where – maybe – he could become an artist. For Bryan Wynter the high moors beyond St Ives – the landscape of childhood holidays – held the promise of self-discovery and release after the enforced six-year gap between art school and career.
The many-layered, multi-dimensional nature of place is the subject of much recent writing and reflection. A place is, in one sense, somewhere you come to, somewhere you are. But a place is also shaped by where its inhabitants come, and came, from – a very much wider story.
St Ives is a place I’ve come to know from outside and inside – through the history of its art but also through having lived there since the mid-1990s, when artists like Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Sandra Blow were all in full late-career flow. The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time links St Ives and its artists to the wider story of post-war Britain, charting some of those extraordinary lines of connection. Bizarre confluences, chance arrivals and unexpected meetings happen everywhere and anywhere, of course. But it’s their particular, unique nature that makes a place what it is, and makes its story worth the telling.
Michael Bird is a freelance writer, editor and broadcaster based in St Ives and is author of The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time (Lund Humphries 2008), Sandra Blow (Lund Humphries 2005), Bryan Wynter (Lund Humphries 2010) and Lynn Chadwick (Lund Humphries 2014).