DENYS VAL BAKER AND ST IVES
My main purpose in writing this essay about Denys Val Baker is to
direct attention to two novels and half-a-dozen short stories in
which he drew on aspects of the artists’ colony in and around the
one-time, small Cornish fishing town of
He was born in
Val Baker was a conscientious objector during the Second World War,
and seems to have been active around literary
That Val Baker had more than a passing interest in little magazines was demonstrated by the publication of his first book in 1943. Titled Little Reviews 1914-1943, it provided a fifty-three page summary of significant publications in the period concerned. As Val Baker himself pointed out, it was “an apparently unexplored field” in terms of trying to document developments and differences in magazine publishing. To follow up on his small book, Val Baker was chosen to edit an annual selection of material from current little magazines which continued from 1943 to 1948. I should add that a glance at a Val Baker bibliography will show that he was also involved with several other publications, such as Writing Today, Modern Short Stories, and Voyage. As well as editing, he was also working on his own novels and stories. His first novel was published in 1945, with two more appearing before the end of the decade.
Val Baker would easily fit into the bohemian category, but could
never be accused of being non-productive. Once situated in
Val Baker was clearly aware of the presence of artists in
I’ve hopefully managed to impart the idea that he was an established
member of the St Ives artistic community, so was in a position to
observe its personalities, absorb its atmosphere, and create
fictional interpretations of life there. A constant theme
appears to be to indicate that moving to live in
In Val Baker’s novel, A
Journey with Love, published in 1955 (see Bibliographical
Notes), Martin works in an advertising agency but really wants to
abandon commercial work and paint for his own satisfaction. Lesley
in an actress. They decide to quit
It might be worth mentioning that
A Journey with Love was
originally published in the
There are references to St Ives and its colony of artists. Martin
visits a sculptor (probably based on Sven
A second Val Baker novel,
Company of Three, appeared in 1974, though the events it was
partly based on took place in the 1950s. It has some quite obvious
autobiographical elements, as for example in the character of
Stanley, a writer who edits a small, short-story magazine and whose
wife is a potter. They have previously lived in
The weekend develops, with Vivian who is now, as one of his friends
points out, “Drinking like a fish, never eating, never sleeping……”,
and still in love with Nell. It all ends in tragedy when Vivian
drives off in his battered old van after shouting to Stanley, “you
and your swanky new car. Race you to
It would seem that there was an incident like this when the potter Len Missen was killed and that Val Baker had been present and driving on the same road as Missen. There doesn’t appear to have been any evidence that they were racing and, in fact, Val Baker’s vehicle was in far better condition than Missen’s and a competition would have been a non-starter. It’s probable that Missen had been drinking and was driving too fast, anyway. The noteworthy thing about Company of Three is that the originals for most of the characters are easily recognisable.
The two novels referred to seem to be the only ones in which Val Baker dealt directly with art and artists. But he also wrote several short stories which revolved around painters and others. In “A Work of Art”, a writer “discovers” the work of an artist he initially knows nothing about. His comments on how he reacts to the paintings are enlightening: “I am a writer, not a painter or an art critic and no doubt my attitude to painting would be what is called literary, i.e. rather on the romantic side; indeed, I must confess I did not now then and have never bothered to ascertain since, exactly what standards of technical abilities lay behind the painting I now gazed upon in that gallery window”. It’s the “vivid scattered combinations – colours and shapes, lines and shadows, sea and land and sky all concentrated into some cohesive whole –“ that draw his attention to the painting.
He finds out who the artist is, sees more of her work, meets her in person, and he begins to be attracted to her. But when he realises that she is probably in love with someone else he starts out on a campaign to destroy her work, commencing with the paintings by her that he owns, proceeding to attack canvases hung in galleries, and finally invading her studio and disfiguring what he finds there. The story ends in a bizarre way and with the writer aware that whatever he has done he is still a “superficial observer”. She has told him at one point that “Words are really inadequate, aren’t they?”, and it suggests that he will never be able to break through to either her or her work.
Although Val Baker put the words into the mouth of his fictional
female artist they are actually from an interview with the painter
Margo Mackleberghe that he included in his non-fiction survey of the
creative spirit in
The suggestion that an encounter with artists and their work might
not always be beneficial is also to be found in “Testament of a
Green-Eyed Man”. A young couple move to
The dark side of life in
Mark is an archaeologist and often away on explorations, leaving Shelley alone. The narrator begins an affair with her, but soon realises that he’s not her only lover: “She was, in fact, a natural nymphomaniac, completely self-possessed and totally unconcerned with anyone’s feelings save her own”. As for Mark, he is seemingly oblivious to what his wife does, and is obsessed by the Celtic past that he researches. It’s a “world of primitive, yet cunning people who lived by different gods, different values”. He takes the narrator to an area where there is a large flat stone and says: “Two thousand years ago this place was alive. The priests came up that path, then they formed around the big stone. Fires were lit, men carried in the sacrifice. There was the smell of myrrh and incense. And blood”. When asked what the sacrifice was, Mark replies, “A woman”.
They throw a party, the theme of which will be everyone dressing up like Ancient Britons, with the culmination being a celebration at the old stone and a mock sacrifice. The guests, some of them hooded like the priests of old, gather around the stone and Shelley lies down on it. Most of the men had been her lovers at one time or another. The moon is suddenly hidden by dark clouds, there is a “wild cry, the like of which none of us had ever heard before”, and when it’s light enough again to see, Shelley is dead, killed by “the long sacrificial knife” Mark had discovered on one of his archeological digs. But who had murdered her?
Women do seem to have had a largely disturbing influence in Val
Baker’s stories, and “The Girl in the Photograph” continues this
idea as an artist and his wife move to live in an old mill. They are
given several old photographs of some of the previous occupiers, and
in one of them can be seen a young woman lurking in the background.
The artist becomes obsessed with the girl, has clearer copies of the
photograph made, and starts to find out more about her. It turns out
that her name was Maeve, she was from
Finding out these basic facts doesn’t satisfy the artist, and in the end his need to know more and almost will Maeve into life, despite that she’s been dead many years, not only affects his work, but also drives a wedge between him and his wife. In a scene where she taunts him about his feelings for Maeve he assaults her, with the result that she leaves him. In the end, he’s living in a dream world, realising that his passion will “consume” him, perhaps to the point of death. He constantly haunts the cliffs where Maeve was known to wander: “Or perhaps, and this I think is more likely, she will be waiting for me out on the wild cliffs, dancing away from me across giant granite steps, out and out towards the mirror of the sea until one day, leaping forward to grasp her hand, I shall be lost with her in some vast eternity”.
It’s something of a relief to turn to a couple of stories which
offer a lighter view of the artistic life of St Ives. “The Potter’s
Art” is the story of a young potter in St Ives who attracts the
attention of an older, wealthy patron. She has a history of taking
up various “painters, sculptors, writers, actors, and so forth. But
she had never had a real, live potter before”. She starts to hang
around his workshop, watching him shape his pots and noting that he
is physically attractive, as well as being talented. Eventually, she
spirits him away to
He is successful, though not happy about the lady’s personal demands on his time and energies. And she is, he has begun to realise, older than she looks. Needing an assistant for his work, “a young girl student by the name of Miranda” is hired. She’s pretty and enthusiastic about pottery, and the inevitable happens. They are caught in “an unmistakably compromising position” and the girl is ordered to leave. But the potter exacts his revenge on the older woman in a bizarre way that gives a “twist in the tale” aspect to the story. Some might say that the “twist” brings in the dark element of the other stories. I was reminded of the sort of short pieces that Gerald Kersh used to write when I read “The Potter’s Art”. Like them, it doesn’t waste words and comes to a brisk conclusion.
“Artists in Wonderland” explores a fairly well-worn idea, though in an entertaining way. Dick Drake arrives in St Merry (an obvious St Ives) after packing in his job as a bank clerk and determining to become a painter. The only accommodation he can find in the by-then popular art colony is in an old furniture van. He meets a young woman who works as a model, and she helps him convert the van into comfortable living quarters, and begins to educate him in the ways of the art world. He can’t make any money with his paintings, so has to hire himself out as a washer-up at various cafés. He attends a local art school, where the teacher, Alice Sampson, takes him under her wing after “learning that his uncle was the fabulously rich owner of Drakes Ju-Jubes”, a popular sweet.
Promoted by his teacher, and with the media enticed by the idea of an artist living in a furniture van, Dick soon has an exhibition, despite the fact that his paintings are only half-finished. He’s also managed to establish a friendship of sorts with a famous artist who lives in the area, and who appears to be more interested in his collection of vintage cars than in offering Dick any useful advice about painting. Boosted by the media, the presence of a representative from the Arts Council, and the reluctance of anyone, apart from his Uncle, to say that Dick’s paintings aren’t very good, the exhibition seems to be a success. But Dick knows what the true situation is, and when he’s offered a well-paid job with his Uncle’s firm he, and the young woman he’d met earlier, immediately leave St Merry.
Like I said, it’s a fairly familiar idea – the gullibility of the art world – but it’s handled in an amusing way, and there’s no hint of the darkness found in the other stories.
I can’t claim that Denys Val Baker was a major writer. He was
competent at producing novels and stories that largely skated easily
over the surface of the narrative and without delving too deeply
into the characters’ personalities or motives. Predictability might
have been a key factor in their overall effect, even when there was
an attempt to surprise. It’s mainly their relationship to the lives
of certain people, fictional and otherwise, from the St Ives
community that interests me. They may not stand comparison wIth Sven
A Journey with Love.
The Face of Love. Sabre Books, 1967. I have not seen this book, but it appears to be a reprint of A Journey with Love, though whether or not it uses the full text is not known.
As The River Flows. Milton House Books, Aylesbury, 1974. This is a reprint of A Journey with Love, but with the first thirty or so pages omitted, and a short introductory synopsis added. No acknowledgement is made to the earlier editions.
Company of Three. Milton House Books, Aylesbury, 1974.
“A Work of Art” in A Work of
Art, William Kimber,
“Testament of a Green Eyed Man” in
The House by the Creek,
“The Sacrifice” in Martin’s
Cottage, William Kimber,
“The Girl in the Photograph” in
The Girl in the Photograph,
“The Potter’s Art” in The
Secret Place & Other Stories from Cornwall, William Kimber,
“Artists in Wonderland” in
The Girl in the Photograph, William Kimber,
There are several non-fiction books by Denys Val Baker which are of relevance:
The Timeless Land: The Creative Spirit in
A View From Land’s End: Writers Against a Cornish Background,
The Spirit of
Other books of interest:
The Cornish Review Anthology 1949-1952,
edited by Martin Val Baker, Westcliffe Books,
The Cornish World of Denys Val Baker, by Tim Scott, Ex Libris Press, Bradford-on-Avon, 1994. Scott contributed an article about Val Baker, with bibliography, to the September, 1990, issue of Book Collector.
Everyone Was Working: Writers and Artists in Post-War St Ives,
by Alison Oldham,
“The Playground” in Why Do You Live So Far Away? by Norman Levine, Deneau Publishers, Ottowa, 1984.
The Dark Monarch
I have only listed the books which directly relate to St Ives and
artists and writers. Val Baker wrote numerous other books (novels,
autobiographies, local histories, etc.) about