The Artists of St Ives

Online from 1 - 25 June 2021

The town of St. Ives, a historic fishing village in Cornwall, its rolling hills, rocky shores, quaint homes, sandy beaches and clear waters have attracted rugged dreamers as far back as 1312 when The Sloop Inn, the first local pub, opened there for business.

In addition to good surfing and excellent fishing, there has always been something extraordinary about the light in St. Ives.That is what began attracting painters to the area in the 1800s, when Impressionism and plein air painting were the rage.

In 1877, when the Great Western Railway extended to St. Ives, and it became an even simple matter to travel there, so many more artists started to come. They painted replications of the cliffs, the sea, the boats, the village, and the hard-working villagers bathed in that mysterious St. Ives light.

In the mid-20th Century, for a couple of decades, this sleepy fishing village of St. Ives joined Paris, New York, and the other world capitals to become a global epicenter of Modern and abstract art.

Ben Nicholson had first visited St Ives during the 1920s with his first wife Winifred. It was here that he and Christopher Wood ‘discovered’ the work of local fisherman Alfred Wallis. They were both delighted and inspired by his naïve seascapes.

Nicholson would return to St Ives during the Second World War, this time with his second wife Barbara Hepworth and the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo. Here their reductive style of abstraction found sympathy with other painters: Peter Lanyon, John Wells and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.

During the 1950s a group of painters gathered around the St Ives and formed the nucleus of avant-garde art in Britain. Among them there were some of the leading modern artists of their time: Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, William Scott, Bryan Wynter. They represented Britain's contribution to an international search for an art that respected modernism's abstract values and was suited to the post-war world and explored the sensitive zone between representation and abstraction. They translated the experiences and sensations surrounding them into pure painting or sculpture.

Many works derived from the artists experience of seeing boats rocking in the harbour. Although drawing inspiration from the surroundings, the compositions were guided principally by the response to the expressive qualities of the materials, colour and form. This was an approach that is common to works by Terry Frost, William Scott and Patrick Heron. The harbour and seawall which Patrick Heron could see from his studio window were the subjects of many of his paintings.

In 1954 painters connected to the St. Ives School including Terry Frost, William Scott and Roger Hilton were included in Lawrence Alloway’s survey Nine Abstract Artists. This publication was significant for examining their work within the framework of contemporary theories of perception. It also introduced the abstract sculptures of Victor Pasmore and Robert Adams - their industrial-looking forms recalled the Constructivist style pioneered by Naum Gabo in the 1930s.

Trevor Bell is widely regarded as the last of the St. Ives School Modernists.

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