Chinnor & District

St Ives Art Colony

Summary of Keith Appelby's presentation to the Art History group - July 2021

Keith, a sometime photography teacher, wood sculptor and art history/appreciation lecturer, lived in Cornwall for 40 years and kindly agreed to talk to our group about the history of the St Ives Art Colony, some of whose members he has known personally.

The attraction of Cornwall and St Ives, going back to the late 19th century, has always been the magical light in its coastal areas which has influenced perspective, depth and tone in different ways for a whole range of artists over the years.

With good rail access in the earlier years, the environment could also be ‘tough’ rather than ‘soft’, always dominated by the weather (good and bad!); reflective of hardy working lives in the mining, china clay, pilchard fishing and sail making industries, the latter’s lofts, for example, providing ideal studio space.

JW Turner himself in earlier days visited Cornwall to paint, energised by the light and Stanley Spencer, although not a ‘member’ of the colony, also visited for inspiration. Earlier artists of the colony, such as Helen Schjerfbeck (View of St Ives, 1887), Julius Olsson (Moonlight Shore 1911) and John Park over the 1920’s-40’s with his impressionistic paintings of boats around St Ives harbour, worked mostly within the traditional modes of their particular era – Parks’ inspiration from Cornwall being reflected in his quote: “colour is everything; anyone can be taught line, but you cannot teach a feeling for colour.”

Others, like Borlase Smart, captured the more unique ruggedness of the surrounding area through the 1920’s and 30’s, particularly the rugged cliffs, coastline and seascapes. Bernard Leach in turn broadened the scope of the colony, leaving Japan to set up his pottery works in the 1920’s with Shoji Hamada, part of a great flowering of artists and designers in the interwar years that reacted against the academicism and narrow concerns of fine art. They sought more tactile forms of expression – ceramics, stone carving, hand block printing and weaving textiles.

Other new influencers, initially just visiting the colony in the late 1920’s, were Christopher Wood and Ben Nicholson, who not only 'contributed’ with their artistic works but also discovered local Cornish fisherman Alfred Wallis whose simplistic depictions of St Ives cottages and boats somehow captured the charm of everyday surroundings. Ben Nicholson himself, an abstract painter influenced by Cubism, came to live in St Ives with Barbara Hepworth just before the second world war.

Hepworth set up her own studio in the late 1940’s and set new directions in the colony’s output, both in sculptures and paintings, particularly ‘organic’ creations which closely reflected nature. Hepworth and Nicholson were encouraging to other artists, fostering experimentation in artistic output.

Artists as different as Bryan Pearce who had limited understanding but great observation (St Ives Round Harbour), Peter Lanyon (Soaring Flight 1960) the abstract painting glider enthusiast and Patrick Heron (Cadmium with Violet, 1969), all thrived in the company of the colony and paved the way for more recent artists in new artistic expression …… notably Terry Frost renowned for his use of the Cornish light, colour and shape through abstract art and very talented, artistically sensitive female painters such as Rose Hilton, Gill Watkiss and Margot Mackelburgh.

The lasting impression from the presentation was not only how the essential nature of St Ives (and Cornwall) and its environment could creatively inspire artists over the years but how this could be expressed artistically in so many different forms and styles.