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 DENYS VAL BAKER AND ST IVES

JIM BURNS

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 St Ives. I say “one-time” because tourism is now largely its main source of income.   However, as I looked at the material referred to, it increasingly occurred to me that it would be necessary to provide some relevant background to Val Baker’s activities before and during his time in Cornwall.

He was born in England in 1917. His parents were Welsh, but his father was then serving with the Royal Flying Corps at an aerodrome not far from York. He grew up wanting to be a writer, and started working-life as a junior reporter on the Derby Evening Telegraph. He moved to London and worked for various publications. His first short story to be published appeared in Weldon’s Ladies Journal in 1941.

Val Baker was a conscientious objector during the Second World War, and seems to have been active around literary London. He started a little magazine called Opus (it later changed its name to Voices), believing that, in the words of his biographer, Tim Scott, “the format of the little magazines was the standard-bearer of contemporary literature”. It should be remembered that the 1940s were boom years for magazines, perhaps because the fragmentary and transient nature of life during wartime lent itself to the production of poetry, short stories, essays, and other written work that could be achieved while on active service or working long hours in factories and offices.

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.

Cornwall had always attracted Val Baker and after several short visits he more or less settled there in 1948. There had, of course, always been artists’ colonies in Cornwall, primarily in Newlyn and St Ives, but the post-war years saw an influx of young, restless artists who, in due course, would attract international attention and establish St Ives as a beacon not only for creativity, but also a noticeable bohemianism. It was a factor that did not always sit well with the serious, working painters and sculptors, or many of the locals. The non-productive beatniks of the late-1950s and early-1960s were, in particular, to become a nuisance.

Val Baker would easily fit into the bohemian category, but could never be accused of being non-productive. Once situated in Cornwall, he started a magazine, The Cornish Review, which survived for ten issues from 1949 to 1952. An anthology compiled from this publication and published many years later has work by W.S. Graham, Jack Clemo, Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin, Charles Causley, Arthur Caddick, Guido Morris, Norman Levine, and others, not to mention an informative introductory essay by Martin Val Baker. The magazine was revived by Denys Val Baker in 1966 and there were twenty-seven issues before it came to an end in 1974.

Val Baker was clearly aware of the presence of artists in Cornwall, and in 1950 he wrote the introduction to Paintings from Cornwall, published by Cornwall Libraries. But his main efforts in promoting the notion that St Ives had something special to offer, both in terms of its physical location and as a centre for artistic activity, went into Britain’s Art Colony by the Sea, which appeared in 1959.  It has been described as a fairly lightweight survey of the subject, and it’s true that it doesn’t pretend to provide a deeply critical analysis of what was being produced in and around St Ives in the late-1950s. It offers a broad, liberally-illustrated account that sums up the history of the town as a haven for artists, and gives some information about Val Baker’s contemporaries like Peter Lanyon, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Bryan Wynter, John Wells, and Barbara Hepworth. It mentions pottery, too, and it’s interesting to note that Val Baker’s wife, Jess, worked as a potter and that he later wrote books on the subject.

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 Cornwall did not always lead to contentment. Very few of the artists, writers, and others who were in St Ives or nearby had been born in Cornwall. Peter Lanyon was an exception. The others had arrived for one reason or another and often carried their economic and emotional baggage  with them. As few of them were financially independent, they often led somewhat impoverished lives, a fact that could grate hard on their partners, if they had them. They’d frequently come to Cornwall with expectations of fulfilling dreams of escaping from unwelcome work and finding the freedom to create as they wanted to.

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 London and head for Cornwall. It all seems idyllic, though Martin has to continue doing some commercial work to earn money for the basics. As with so many artists he can’t make enough from his creative productions to support himself and his wife, And soon they have a child. Then Martin is badly injured in a boating accident. Like the hero of Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, the accident leaves him unable to have sexual intercourse. He sinks into depression, his work suffers, as does his relationship with his wife and son. There is eventually a resolution to his problems, but only after a period of doubt and anguish.

It might be worth mentioning that A Journey with Love was originally published in the USA in 1955, with a paperback edition in 1956. British publishers had been reluctant to handle it because it was considered too explicit in its sexual themes. It’s difficult to now see why they thought that way, but it was before the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial and the near-collapse of censorship in the 1960s. Val Baker later published the novel in Britain under two different titles. The Faces of Love came out as a Sabre paperback in 1967. I’ve never seen a copy of this title, so don’t know if it has the full text of the American edition. When Val Baker published it again in 1974, this time as As the River Flows, he omitted around thirty of the opening pages and re-shaped some other parts. My own feeling is that the American edition is the best one to read. It gives the characters of Martin and Lesley a greater substance.

There are references to St Ives and its colony of artists. Martin visits a sculptor (probably based on Sven Berlin) in the town. He goes into the Castle Inn on Fore Street, where, in the 1950s, the landlord was Endell Mitchell, brother of the sculptor, Denis Mitchell, and where paintings by St Ives artists were displayed on the walls. And there is a section where Martin thinks about three of the “small ‘ginger’ group of younger artists who shared his own desire to penetrate into the hidden depths and meanings of Cornwall”. One of them is, from the description of his work, Peter Lanyon. Another could be Bryan Wynter.

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 Cornwall, but are now in London. One day they receive a note from Vivian, one of their Cornish contacts, someone who had lodged in their old house near Penzance, inviting them to visit for the weekend. They drive down to the South West, but the trip revives memories of their earlier days in Cornwall and why they left. Nell, the wife, had become obsessed with Vivian and had an affair with him.

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 Penzance!”. There is inevitably a crash in which Vivian is badly injured and later dies in hospital.

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 Cornwall, The Timeless Land. (see Bibliographical Notes). This doesn’t in any way indicate that he based his fictional character on her. 

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 Cornwall and begin to mix with the artists there. They meet Veronica, an older woman who is a well-known sculptor, and she asks the wife, Danny, to model for her. The husband is suspicious of Veronica, and is soon jealous of the way in which Danny is spending more and more time with her. It’s obvious to him that some sort of relationship has developed between his wife and Veronica, and that it is affecting his marital situation. He confronts Veronica, rapes her, and steals the bust of his wife that she had created. The end result is that Danny leaves with Veronica, while he retreats to his “empty and desolate” moorland cottage to reflect on what he has done. It’s not a pleasant story and might well add weight to Alison Oldham’s observation that, for Val Baker, “Imagination was what he prized in fiction but his fantasies make unsettling reading”.

The dark side of life in Cornwall crops up again in “The Sacrifice” in which the old Celtic ways with Druids and tales of human sacrifice provide a basis for the story. The narrator gets to know Mark and Shelley, a bright young couple who live in a cottage on the moors above St Ives. He meet them in the town: “It’s a gay, colourful place, the houses built around a tiny harbour, with blue and white fishing boats bobbing about like corks. In the little pubs by the wharf, painters and their friends gather in the evenings and argue about Picasso and Matisse and Henry Moore”.

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 Ireland, and was the model and the mistress of the old man in the photo. He was Anthony Sampson, a painter who had been quite well-known in his day.

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 London to establish his work as a “with-it item on the ever-changing panorama of London art life”.

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 Berlin’s satirical novel, The Dark Monarch, or with Norman Levine’s From a Seaside Town and his novella, The Playground, in their portrait of St Ives, but they can be placed alongside those works as a useful record of fictional accounts of a time and place. 

BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

A Journey with Love. Crest Books, New York, 1956. It had been published in America by Bridgehead Books in 1955, but I’ve never seen a copy of that edition,

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, London, 1984.

“Testament of a Green Eyed Man” in The House by the Creek, William Kimber, London, 1981.

“The Sacrifice” in Martin’s Cottage, William Kimber, London, 1983.

“The Girl in the Photograph” in The Girl in the Photograph, William Kimber, London, 1982.

“The Potter’s Art” in The Secret Place & Other Stories from Cornwall, William Kimber, London, 1977.

“Artists in Wonderland” in The Girl in the Photograph, William Kimber, London, 1982.

There are several non-fiction books by Denys Val Baker which are of relevance:

Britain’s Art Colony by the Sea, George Ronald, London, 1959. Reprinted in 2000, with an introduction and index added, by Sansom & Co., Bristol.

The Timeless Land: The Creative Spirit in Cornwall, Adams & Dart, Bath, 1973.

A View From Land’s End: Writers Against a Cornish Background, William Kimber, London, 1982.

The Spirit of Cornwall, W.H. Allen, London, 1980. A revised edition of The Timeless Land.

Other books of interest:

The Cornish Review Anthology 1949-1952, edited by Martin Val Baker, Westcliffe Books, Bristol, 2009.

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, Tate St Ives, 2002. A small but invaluable survey of the subject.

From a Seaside Town by Norman Levine, Deneau & Greenberg, Ottowa, 1980

“The Playground” in Why Do You Live So Far Away?  by Norman Levine, Deneau Publishers, Ottowa, 1984.

The Dark Monarch by Sven Berlin, Finishing Publications, Stevenage, 2009. The original edition, published by Galley Press, London, 1962, was withdrawn after several libel writs were issued against the publisher. The story behind the libel allegations is told in the new edition.          

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 Cornwall generally and his activities there. In addition, as mentioned at the beginning of my essay, he published various titles before moving to Cornwall, and edited many magazines and anthologies. A comprehensive bibliography can be found in Tim Scott’s biography.