Don’t worry, I’m not going to come knocking on your door with the latest edition of the Watchtower: This article is about the clarity of light that has brought artists to West Cornwall for years.
I’m no artist, and before you start to snigger, I mean I can’t paint or draw, which is why I’ve got the utmost admiration for those that can.
I do believe that the quality of the light in West Cornwall is special, but I also believe that artists have beat a path to St. Ives for the quality of life as well.
I mean, let’s be honest, would you prefer to be working in an office or on the factory floor all day, to dabbling with a paint brush on the harbourside in between visits to the Sloop? I thought not.
I don’t think they make a vast fortune mind you, but then again, I don’t think they worry about the money side of it too much either. My philosophy about life is somewhat similar – but unfortunately, I’m no good at painting the bathroom door let alone a nice atmospheric seascape.
Painting en plein air became fashionable in Cornwall back in the 1880s with Falmouth, Newlyn and St. Ives setting up their own individual artist colonies.
Some of the more renowned artists, such as Ben Nicholson were encouraged by Alfred Wallis, a retired seaman who didn’t start painting until he was in his seventies. A man of very little personal wealth he used all sorts of bits and pieces to paint on. Although he died a pauper in 1942 his legend lives on and his old home still stands in Back Road West which has a plaque on the wall outside.
The St. Ives School of Painting opened up in 1938 just a few doors away in the Porthmeor Studios and is still going strong today.
In 1949 a group of abstract artists led by Ben Nicholson, his wife, Barbara Hepworth, and the potter, Bernard Leach, broke away from the more conservative St. Ives School to form the Penwith Society of Arts, whose home is now in the Penwith Gallery, an old pilchard packing factory further along Back Road West. Both Bernard Leach and Barbara Hepworth have been given the Freedom of St. Ives, and if sculpture is your thing then a visit to the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden is a must.
I can’t say the same about the Tate St. Ives I’m afraid. I’m sure there are plenty of people out there who would call me a philistine for saying that, but in my opinion the best thing about the Tate is the building, which I think fits into the landscape pretty well. It should do mind you, it cost enough money.
The gallery was opened by Prince Charles in 1993 to a design by architects Evans and Shalev. Perched above Porthmeor Beach, the Tate was designed to celebrate and compliment the work done by the St. Ives artists, but it’s worth remembering that there are no permanent galleries, just special exhibitions of various artists from around the world, and if my experiences are anything to go by, have a limited appeal to people who like to understand what they’re looking at.
It goes without saying of course that the appreciation of art is subjective, but on the couple of occasions that I’ve been here I have to say that I’ve been totally underwhelmed, and judging by the Trip Advisor reviews (not that they always mean very much admittedly) I’m not the only one. It doesn’t help either, that unlike the Tate Galleries in London, you have to pay for the privilege.
If, like me, the Tate isn’t your thing, then there are plenty of art galleries around town that might tempt you to part with some money. I realised a long time ago that artists in these sort of places have two different sets of brushes – one for painting what the tourists want, and the other for what they like to paint for themselves. If you think that you might want to take home one of these paintings you might be wise to have a look around before you head off to the Sloop.
The Sloop is supposed to have been around since 1312 and became known as the ‘Artists Pub’. Located on The Wharf right next to the harbour, it’s not difficult to see why many of the town’s artists popped in here after putting their palettes away for the day; not only could they drop in for a pint and chew the fat with their mates, they could also hang their pictures on the wall – and the good thing about it was that when they ran out of money, all they had to do was hand one of their paintings over the bar to settle the bill.
To my knowledge this practise doesn’t happen anymore, but the walls are still hung with plenty of sketches of fishermen and local characters drawn by Hyman Segal. Apparently, they were commissioned by the landlord when the pub was enlarged in 1954, and have been here as long as I can remember.
As you would expect, the pub is extremely popular in the summer, but for me it’s much nicer here on a winter’s day when you can have a chat with the local artists, fishermen and other visitors over a pint or two.
Outside, there are no crowds, and even the seagulls have stopped mugging people; there’s a peaceful air that permeates around the harbour and narrow back streets of Downalong which gives wintertime in St. Ives a very different feel to it from that of summer.
It doesn’t matter whether the sun is beating down from a cloudless blue sky onto the turquoise sea in summer, or whether the moon is shimmering across the water on a cold winter’s evening, there’s still one thing that they both have in common; just ask the artists – it’s the light of course.