An exhibition at the Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance, 14th September, 2019 to 16th November, 2019

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Box Factory Fire, 1948 Wilhelmina Barns-Graham ©Wilhelmina Barns-Graham Trust 

In 1949 there was an established St Ives Society of Artists, an organisation largely dominated by what can be called “traditional” painters, but with some members drawn from the ranks of the modernists who had begun to make their presence felt in St Ives in the post-war period. Some of the older artists seem to have resented the inclusion of the newcomers, though the fine marine painter, Robert Borlase Smart, thought that they ought to be represented in the Society’s exhibitions, as did Leonard Fuller, who ran the School of Painting in St Ives. I would guess that Borlase Smart was a strong enough personality in the community to ensure that a tolerant spirit prevailed, at least while he was still alive. Moderns like Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin, John Wells, Bryan Wynter, and the printer, Guido Morris exhibited their work In a room under the Society’s gallery in the 1940s and were referred to as the Crypt Group.

Smart died in 1947 and by early-1949 it was obvious that matters were about to come to a head. What has been described as a “fractious and insulting” extraordinary general meeting was called by the traditionalists. Chris Stevens, in his St Ives: The Art and the Artists (Pavilion Books, London, 2018) suggests that there was some orchestration of events by Peter Lanyon and others. The result was that there was a split in the St Ives Society of Artists and many of the newcomers resigned and formed their own group, to be called the Penwith Society of Arts. I’m deliberately summarising what happened, and a more-detailed account can be found in Chris Stephens’s book.

The Penwith group met in the Castle Inn in Fore Street, where the landlord was, at that time, Endell Mitchell, brother of the sculptor, Denis Mitchell, one of the modernists. It was here that the Penwith Society of Arts came into existence. Among its members were Ben Nicolson, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, and the aforementioned members of the Crypt group. But it wasn’t limited to a handful of modernists artists, and included “traditionalist painters and sculptors but also craftspeople”.

The driving forces behind the Penwith Society were Nicolson, Hepworth, Leach and Lanyon.  However, in many ways, it followed the pattern of similar organisations involving writers and artists, and to quote Chris Stephens, it was quickly “riven with in-fighting and secession, the divisive legacy of which would become a characteristic of the social and professional life of ‘St Ives’ for another decade or more”. Peter Lanyon and Sven Berlin, for example, soon resigned from the Society. It’s probably inevitable that, when strong and determined personalities come together, there is sure to be friction as they attempt to assert their personalities. This can be particularly so when an organisation wants to impose rules on writers and artists, and to make some activities appear more important than others.

The exhibition at the Penlee Gallery in Penzance offers a fairly wide-ranging view of the work of various painters and sculptors associated with the PenwIth Society in the 1950s. Work by many others, besides those named so far, is included, though there’s no denying that some of it may be of minor value outside the group context. But it needs to be acknowledged that artists like Marion Grace Hocken, Isobel Heath Tom Early, and David Houghton, were active around St Ives and helped provide the background against which more-adventurous painters functioned. However, it is the well-known artists, those whose names are often now associated with St Ives, that stand out, and there are good things by Bryan Wynter, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, and Barbara Hepworth on display.

If one crosses over from Penzance to St Ives itself, the Penwith Galley in the centre of the town picks up the post-1960 story of the Penwith Society of Artists. Some of the painters already mentioned were active and newcomers like Karl Weschke and Paul Feiler were beginning to be known. And Tate St Ives also looks at the post-war scene in St Ives and places it in a broad context of international influences. For a time, St Ives was seen as having close ties to what was happening elsewhere in abstract art. The influential American art critic, Clement Greenberg, thought it essential to visit the town and meet Patrick Heron and others, and the noted American abstract-expressionist, Mark Rothko, also put in an appearance.

The overall effect of starting off in Penzance with the exhibition devoted to the PenwIth Society of Arts, then looking at the work in the Penwith Gallery and Tate St Ives, is to demonstrate how vibrant and important a place St Ives was in the twenty or so years between 1945 and 1965. It wasn’t just because artists congregated there during that period. They always had, going back to the turn of the twentieth-century. But there was something about the atmosphere in the years I’ve referred to that attracted not only forward-looking painters and sculptors, but also poets such as W.S. Graham and Arthur Caddick, novelists and short-story writers like Norman Levine and Denys Val Baker, and the printer Guido Morris, who produced poetry pamphlets, brochures and catalogues for exhibitions, and much more. Baker also edited The Cornish Review, which helped highlight the artistic situation in Cornwall, and he wrote a book, Britain’s Art Colony By The Sea, published in 1959, which was the first to draw attention to the activities and achievements of the artists and sculptors.

It may be a personal obsession, but when there are display cases filled with copies of old posters, novels, collections of poems, letters and postcards,  leaflets advertising exhibitions and readings, I’m doubly entranced by the paintings on display. Purists may insist that a work of art ought to stand alone, but I prefer to not only consider it on its own merits, but also see it within a framework of shared activity and creativity.