By Chris Stephens

Pavilion in conjunction with the Tate. 304 pages. £26. ISBN 978-1-911624-32-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

St Ives, a place, and also a name that resonates with stories about the “school” or “movement” associated with it. And the artists, of course. There have been artists around St Ives since the late-nineteenth century, but it was, perhaps, only from the 1930s on that the notion of a group which could have something in common in relation to what might be called “modernist art” appeared to have substance. Prior to that, most of the artists worked in a style that largely documented the town and its residents, with an emphasis on the sea and the men and women employed in various aspects of the fishing industry. Not all of the painters lived in St Ives, and for a time Newlyn was important, with Stanhope Forbes and Walter Langley located there. But St Ives soon started to dominate in terms of a broad awareness of art in Cornwall. And the name St Ives is certainly associated with movements in art largely starting in the 1930s

I suppose it’s reasonably accurate to say that it all began with the arrival of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in 1939. They were refugees, in a sense, from the Second World War and the threat of London being a prime target for German bombers. They were quickly followed by the Russian sculptor, Naum Gabo. Nicholson was not completely new to the area, having visited it with his first wife, Winifred Nicholson and their friend, the ill-fated artist, Christopher Wood. The story of their “discovery” of the naïve painter, Alfred Wallis, and their advocacy of his work, is fairly well-known, though it eventually led to accusations of Nicholson exploiting Wallis and making money from paintings he bought for nest-to-nothing from him and re-selling them in London at much higher prices. All that would come later.

Bernard Leach was already in St Ives, though Chris Stephens says that “while the artists’ colony was an attraction” Leach found it a “disappointment until the arrival of Hepworth and Nicholson”. The war years weren’t easy for any of them, and the post-1945 period, with the country locked into an austerity as harsh as that experienced during the war, didn’t improve quickly. There was initially a feeling that a better society might evolve from the election of a Labour Government committed to radical changes. But the spirit of  “make do and mend” persisted well into the late-1940s, and artists like Peter Lanyon, Margaret Mellis, and John Wells, had to improvise and produce constructivist works from whatever material they could find, including old piston rings, pebbles, knitting needles and string.

Bryan Wynter moved into The Carn, a cottage near Zennor Hill. It was isolated, and had no electricity or running water.  It wasn’t just painters that were being attracted to the area around St Ives, and Stephens particularly refers to the poet W.S. Graham, who was to establish friendships wIth Wynter, Peter Lanyon, and a later arrival, Roger Hilton. But Graham wasn’t the only poet to settle in Cornwall, though the others didn’t stay as long as he did. George Barker, John Heath-Stubbs, and David Wight, also put in an appearance. Sven Berlin, painter, sculptor, writer, suggested that: “Among them was an almost conscious degradation through poverty, in which poverty became a vice and was used as a form of depravity”. Berlin would become a controversial figure among the St Ives community, particularly when his 1962 novel, The Dark Monarch, had to be withdrawn from circulation after several people threatened the publisher with libel prosecutions. The full story of who these people were, and why they claimed to recognise themselves in the book, is told in its 2009 reprint.

There was a St Ives Society of Artists which had been founded in 1927, but Peter Lanyon started the Crypt Group, along with Sven Berlin, John Wells, Bryan Wynter, and the printer, Guido Morris. The Group held three exhibitions between 1946 and 1948, with other artists besides those named also participating. The aim was clearly to establish the fact that the newer arrivals in St Ives had different ideas about what they wanted to achieve as artists. It should be noted that exhibitions were also held in the Castle pub, where the landlord’s brother was the painter and sculptor Denis Mitchell, and in George Downing’s bookshop.

That there was a steadily growing development of a community is evident from other activities beyond those of the painters. Guido Morris was producing leaflets and catalogues for the exhibitions, but was also printing small collections of poems by, among others, Norman Levine and Arthur Caddick. Levine later turned to fiction and works like the novella, The Playground, and the novel, From a Seaside Town, are clearly based on characters and events in St Ives. Francis Bacon, who didn’t stay in St Ives for any length of time, appears in fictional form in From a Seaside Town.

As for Arthur Caddick, he was, as a poet, not in the same class as W.S. Graham, but he wrote entertainingly about life in Cornwall. I have a copy of his The Speech of Phantoms, a very slim volume published by Morris’s Latin Press in 1951. The poems are more formal than those Caddick became noted for later, when he had achieved some local notoriety as a bohemian and a boozer, and published a collection of poems called Broadsides from Bohemia. 

It’s also of relevance to refer to The Cornish Review, a magazine started by Denys Val Baker in 1949, which went through several issues, died in 1951, and was revived in 1963. He wrote two books about St Ives art, the first appearing in 1950 and the second, better-known one in 1959. And some of his novels and short stories (he was a prolific writer) revolved around Cornish artists and their involvements. The most significant is probably his novel, A Journey with Love, which gave Val Baker an opportunity to comment on various styles of painting then current in Cornwall. Another novel, A Company of Three, fictionalised a real-life tragedy, the death of the potter Len Missen in a road accident. And a short-story, “Testament of a Green-Eyed Man” focuses on a St Ives sculptress. Anyone wanting to know more about writers and St Ives should refer to Alison Oldham’s Everyone was Working: Writers and Artists in Postwar St Ives.

One further item worthy of attention is J.P. Hodin’s article, “Cornish Renaissance”, which was in the penultimate issue of Penguin New Writing in 1950. This points to the growing awareness of the importance of St Ives on the British art scene.

The use of the word “community” to describe the artists in St Ives can’t hide the fact that clashes of personality were frequent occurrences. Stephens describes how the Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall was formed, with Hepworth, Nicholson, Bernard Leach and Peter Lanyon as the driving forces behind it. But it was “soon riven with in-fighting and secession”, and Lanyon eventually left the Society, as did Sven Berlin.

Berlin, in fact, claimed that by leaving he was ignored by the Arts Council, and that “national, public and corporate galleries left me out of their collections here and in America”. His work was dropped by the London galleries and excluded from the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition. As Stephens says of Berlin, “there are many possible explanations for his exclusion from the artistic mainstream”, but it does appear to be the case that questions of patronage were not necessarily improved by the establishment of the Arts Council. Certain people could become too powerful in terms of influencing which forms of art were considered important enough to support. It’s what happens with institutions. I do think that Berlin was possibly always something of a maverick, anyway, and he did himself say of his situation with regard to the St Ives artists generally, that he was “with them, but not of them”. The exhibition of his work at the Penlee Gallery in Penzance in 2012 demonstrated that he didn’t fit into any category that critics tried to establish. He was simply Sven Berlin.

Stephens is informative on the subject of the personalities and in-fighting, but what of the art that was being produced? By the 1950s it was clear that “modern art,” especially of the abstract variety, had become the dominant mode. The American Abstract Expressionists (particularly those based in New York) had made their mark with exhibitions of their work in London and elsewhere, and there was sometimes a tendency to suggest that their paintings had a great effect on the St Ives artists. It may have been true in terms of size and aspects of technique, but it has always seemed to me that, if there were influences from America they may have been drawn more from some of the painters not linked to the New York school, like Mark Tobey, Clyfford Still, and Sam Francis.

It’s often difficult to know exactly what was seen and by whom, so I’m hazarding a guess based on my own experiences of seeing the work of the artists referred to and that of the St Ives artists. It’s a personal opinion, but from the point of view of its quality, I’d place the best of Bryan Wynter’s work alongside that of Motherwell, Kline and de Kooning. It’s interesting to note that Stephens says that Alan Davie, not a St Ives artist, was probably the British painter of the period who was closest to the Abstract Expressionists.

Patrick Heron always insisted that what happened in St Ives was just as important and original as anything coming from across the Atlantic. The American artist, Mark Rothko, thought it worthwhile to visit St Ives, as did the critic, Clement Greenberg. Heron and Greenberg were friends for a time, though they eventually fell out over the American’s boosting of “colour field” painting and Heron’s suspicions that Greenberg’s links to certain New York commercial art galleries might be shaping his opinions.

Stephens discusses in some detail the work of several individuals, including Nicholson, Hepworth, Wynter, Lanyon (for what it’s worth, I’ve always thought of him and Wynter as the two most interesting artists linked to St Ives) Terry Frost, and Roger Hilton. His comments, which are astute and enlightening without being over-analytical in an academic way, help the reader to understand  how and why the artists concerned aimed to achieve what they did. But he doesn’t just focus on a few successful painters or sculptors, and is informative about Terry Frost, John Wells, Paul Feiler, Karl Weschke, and others. What it is important to note is that, despite any talk about a “movement”, or “school”, there was a wide divergence of artistic aims and interests among the St Ives painters. A broad commitment to abstraction may have been the one overall design that could be usefully said about the modernists in Cornwall.   

The book is concerned with social as well as art history, and what happened in and around St Ives as the traditional occupations like fishing and mining declined is related to the development of the town as a holiday destination. Day trippers began to flock in, others spent a week or two there. It changed the character of the place and long-term residents were not pleased by it. In the late-1950s, when there was something of a wide revival of the bohemian spirit, St Ives was a Mecca for beatniks. Would-be painters and poets turned up, though few of them ever developed any kind of talent for painting and poetry. I can remember a couple of characters in my own Northern home-town who, inspired by reading the Beats and with aspirations towards creativity, decided around 1960, or so, to hitch-hike to St Ives. They reported that they had got there, but we never heard from them again.

This invasion didn’t go down well with the locals, who often blamed the genuine writers and painters for bringing in the great unwashed, as they were seen, and sometimes “corrupting” local people. Norman Levine’s novella, The Playground, climaxes with the suicide of a garage owner who mixes with the artists, and is based on real events. There were suggestions that he had been drawn into a homosexual circle among the artists and their followers, and Peter Lanyon, one of the few Cornish-born artists, reported that, because of his death, there was an “ugly mood” in the town.

With this in mind there was, perhaps, some irony in the fact that, among the genuine artists, a macho rather than a gay culture was predominant. Stephens refers to “the strongly masculine character” of the social life that largely took place in pubs, which in 1950s Britain, even among supposedly liberated bohemians, were not very welcoming towards women. Alcohol, consumed in liberal quantities, fuelled the conversations and the arguments and physical fights that sometimes resulted from too much to drink. There were talented women in the St Ives community of artists. Barbara Hepworth is a notable example, and  Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Sandra Blow,  and Margaret Mellis were also there at one time or another. There was an excellent exhibition, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: A Scottish Painter in St Ives, at the Fleming Collection in London in 2012. There’s no doubt, though, that the male artists tended to attract most of the attention. 

There were casualties among the artists. Peter Lanyon, whose paintings sometimes reflected his interest in gliding, died in an accident. Roger Hilton, who had established a reputation as a painter and heavy drinker before he settled in Cornwall in 1965, died as a result of his alcoholism. The poet, W.S. Graham, a one-time drinking partner of Hilton’s, talked about the “terrible times” they’d had together when he wrote his eulogy for the painter.

The personal stories, the anecdotes, the scandals, are always interesting to read about, and my own feeling is that they can’t be divorced from the art that was being created at the same time. It’s Chris Stephens’ achievement to have written a book that successfully combines analysis of the work of the painters with commentary on the social scene that, in many ways, they helped to create. Their dedication to art, which led to bohemianism, and what seemed to some to be a cultivation of poverty as a way of life¸ may well have been one of the reasons for the arrival of mostly middle-class young people who wanted to play at being poor. The real artists had been that way out of necessity. But bohemianism, as expressed by the Beat writers, and others like them, was in the air in the late-1950s and early-1960s.

 The main question to consider, however, is how worthwhile and lasting was the quality of the work produced in and around St Ives during the period concerned? St Ives: The Art and the Artists makes a powerful case for claiming that the best of it made its mark in both national and international contexts at the time, and that a retrospective view adds weight to it still being of value.