Have you seen the light?

The view towards St. Ives from Hayle

Have you seen the Light?

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.

Painting 'en Plein Air' on the Wharf
The Home of Alfred Wallis
The Home of Alfred Wallis

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.

The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden
The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden

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.

The Tate
The Tate
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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 Digey in Downalong - a good subject for artists perhaps
The Digey in Downalong - a good subject for artists perhaps
The Harbour Galleries
The Harbour Galleries
Ocean Gallery in the Old Custom House
Ocean Gallery in the Old Custom House

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.

Some of Hyman Segal's sketches in the Sloop
Some of Hyman Segal's sketches in the Sloop
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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.

The Sloop in Summer
The Sloop in Summer
The Sloop in Winter
The Sloop in Winter

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.

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16 thoughts on “Have you seen the light?

  1. toonsarah

    I think I would enjoy a winter visit to St Ives, with a few pints in the Sloop and, weather permitting, lots of photo opps in the special light 🙂 I might even check out the Tate – I find some modern art intriguing, other pieces definitely not so!

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      I may have been unlucky with the exhibitions that were on at the Tate when I’ve been there, and there is a new extension which I haven’t been into yet, so if you do get to go in perhaps you can tell me what you think..
      The Barbara Hepworth Museum and Garden are part of the Tate administration, but I’m not sure if it’s open in the winter.

      As I’ve said elsewhere, Penwith is one of my favourite locations in Cornwall and St. Ives is an obvious location to stay, but you need a car to get the most out of the surrounding area, especially in the winter – but that can be the best time of all.

      Reply
  2. Stuart Templeton

    So reading between the lines, and taking a wild stab in the dark… I’m getting a feeling you’re not of fan of modern art then Malcolm? 😀

    A great post, I love that sign – just about sums it up! 😀

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Very astute of you Stuart 🙂 Mind you, I think it’s only fair to distinguish modern art from modern artists. There are some excellent artists out there today, but those who create stuff that only their own mind can understand leaves me less than enthusiastic most of the time..

      Reply
  3. Alli Templeton

    Goodness, how intriguing that the light is so special here, as well as so many other things about the St Ives area it seems. I feel exactly the same as you about art. I think I’d rather go to the Sloop than the Tate, especially in winter when it looks almost magical. Maddie would love the paintings of the tall ships in the Harbour Galleries, as would I. I like paintings to look like things… 🙂

    As always, your writing is inspiring and your photos enticing. Talking about light shimmering over the sea, it reminds me of something I mentioned recently, that amazing full moonlight reflected over the sea and the wet sand at Filey in North Yorkshire last week. That was very special light too, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I bet St Ives is the same. Thanks again for such a fascinating insight into your gorgeous corner of the world.

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      Thank you once again for your lovely comments Alli. Artists come in all flavours and you are an artist of words if I may say so. Everywhere can be magical given the right set of circumstances I believe. It’s just being able to see them at the right time, as you did in Filey last week

      Reply
      1. Alli Templeton

        That’s true, Malcolm, in fact I remember noticing years ago a load of old, broken machinery in a field looking lovely covered in frost. And thank you so much for the compliment about my writing. I’m bowled over by that! It would be lovely to think I can paint a picture with words, because I’m complete rubbish with a brush! 🙂

        Reply
  4. Cathy Reichardt

    What a delightful account, Malc. You have such a talent for sharing your passion for places that are important to you … such as The Sloop 🙂
    On a tangentially related irrelevancy (my favourite!), Cornwall is inundated every year by German tourists seeking the ‘Rosamunde Pilcher’ experience. This delightful author sadly died earlier in the year, but wrote a series of novels that were wildly popular in Germany, and drew extensively on her affection for Cornwall. The central plot of her breakthrough novel, ‘The Shellseekers’, is based around an artist in Cornwall who has chosen to live there because of the light, and many of her other novels also feature Cornwall. Such an unlikely basis for a niche tourism market – yet wildly successful!

    Reply
    1. Malc Post author

      It’s strange isn’t it that she was so revered in Germany and yet hardly made her mark in Cornwall. It’s great to see you comment on one of my blogs Cathy. Thanks for visiting and thanks for your lovely comments

      Reply

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