12 June 2011

Tate and Hepworth at St Ives

A post last month described the recent exhibition at Compton Verney of works by Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson, two artists associated with St Ives (Cornwall, SW England). Virginia Button’s St Ives Artists: A Companion, published by the Tate, provides a helpful introduction to 18 of the best-known members of the colony of artists working there in a significant way from the 1930s to the 1960s (and also to the potter Bernard Leach.

The mission of the Tate’s outpost at St Ives is to present 20th-century art in the context of Cornwall. The displays change regularly, allowing a different selection from the Tate's extensive collection of St Ives art to be shown each year. Visitors need to be aware that there is no permanent display of St Ives artists’ work in the Gallery. However, this year the Tate St Ives Summer Exhibition includes works by two artists with local links: Naum Gabo and Margaret Mellis, both active there during the Second World War.

The St Ives artist whose works are permanently held locally is Barbara Hepworth. Her former studio, now Museum and Sculpture Garden, is near, and part of, Tate St Ives. Gabo and his wife, and Hepworth and her husband, Ben Nicholson (and their triplets), moved to Cornwall in 1939, having been part of the Hampstead community of artists and sculptors from earlier in the 1930s. Common influences such as the use of strings in sculpture can be seen in the Gabo and Hepworth pieces currently at St Ives. Mellis and her first husband also moved to St Ives in 1939 (the Nicholsons lived with them for a while). The work of Nicholson and Gabo led Mellis to experiment with collages, some of which are exhibited. Most of her work on display is from the 1970s: attractive constructions made from driftwood found on the beach at Southwold (Suffolk), where she lived until her death in 2009 at the age of 95.

The St Ives colony was the second such in west Cornwall. There had been rail links to Penzance from 1859 and through services on the Great Western Railway reached St Ives in 1877. The area soon attracted artistic attention: the scenery, the fisherfolk and their boats, together with the exceptional quality of the light and the vogue for painting en plein air, influenced by the naturalism of French painters of the time, led to a settlement of artists at Newlyn. Part of the attraction of Newlyn was its similarity to Brittany. Penlee House Museum and Gallery in Penzance is the only Cornish public gallery specialising in the Newlyn School artists including Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes, Walter Langley, Harold Harvey and Laura Knight.

As well as a selection from its permanent collection, Penlee House is running an exhibition this summer, Walter Langley and the Birmingham Boys, featuring some of the artists who came from the Midlands to work in Newlyn from the 1880s onwards.

There are tickets available for combined entry to Tate St Ives, including the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Penlee House, which offer a useful saving – these do not seem to be publicised on either organisations’ websites, but are featured at the Tate St Ives ticket desk.

Among the London galleries, Messum’s has a continuing interest in West Country paintings from the 1880s onwards. Locally, the Market House Gallery in Marazion holds a good stock of prints by Terry Frost and others, any of which might suit the whitewashed walls of what was once a fisherman’s cottage.

However, any visitor with a taste for late St Ives abstractionism, should not ignore the vagaries of the Cornish weather, well-appreciated by the realists of the Newlyn School:

The Rain it Raineth Every Day by Norman Garstin

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