Leeds City Art Gallery. 23rd March 2024 to 23rd March 2025

Reviewed by Jim Burns

An obvious link between Cornwall and Yorkshire is Barbara Hepworth, the Wakefield-born sculptor who lived for much of her life in St Ives. Another, is Terry Frost, closely associated with the post-war school of St Ives abstract art but also spending time in Leeds as a recipient of a Gregory Fellowship. Both are represented in the current exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery, along with a range of other artists whose work has links to Cornwall.

Frost’s “Brown Verticles” is one of the highlights of the exhibition, its large size and gleaming surface capturing the attention immediately.  I somehow never think of brown as being one of the most inviting of colours, but Frost’s canvas invests it with life.  Alongside it are works by Peter Lanyon, Paul Feiler (a small, but attractive “Winter Cornwall”), Naum Gabo, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, the potter Bernard Leach, Patrick Heron, and the little-known Marlow Moss, whose “Spatial Construction” is a neat example of her constructivist activity. Two younger contemporary abstract artists working in St Ives – Veronica Ryan and Ro Robertson – are also there.

It’s a small but satisfying show, indicating as it does how much talent was concentrated for a time in a relatively small area, and how much provocative and vital work was produced. 

In an adjoining room there is an exhibition built around the painter John Tunnard, a now largely-forgotten figure in British art who lived and taught in Penzance. Histories of post-war St Ives art tend to overlook him. and he doesn’t rate a mention in Frances Spalding’s The Real and the Romantic: English Art Between the Two World Wars (Thames & Hudson, 2022).  He was sometimes associated with the British surrealists, if a label is necessary.  But artists often slide in and out of categories and there is sufficient individuality in Tunnard’s work to indicate that, in Desmond Morris’s words in his The British Surrealists (Thames & Hudson, 2022), he always retained a “unique personal vision”. He was an engaging abstract painter, sometimes influenced by entomology and the natural world but also by space travel and technology, and an engaging personality if the stories in Morris’s book are anything to go by.  He turned down an invitation to join the St Ives Society of Artists because, Morris says, he “seems to have disliked the bitchy in-fighting that was going on there”.

It’s good to see a number of Tunnard’s paintings given prominence, and to have them hung alongside those by some of his contemporaries. I was delighted to see Edward Wadsworth’s “Slump”, a commentary on the economic situation of the 1930s in his clearly-defined, immediately identifiable style, and works by, among others, the always-interesting Paul Nash and C.R W. Nevinson. Viewed together, and with the St Ives artists, they point to the fascinating but too often neglected history of British modernism.