St Ives

St Ives
   When the Tate Gallery opened in St Ives, Cornwall, in 1993, it focused attention on the important role that the area had played in the development of modern art in Britain during the twentieth century, as well as renewing interest in the artistic community which still flourishes there. The architects Eldred Evans and David Shalev were the winners of a nationwide competition to design the new gallery, which is situated on the site of the old gas works, and the cylindrical loggia at the entrance of the building recalls the shape of the gas holder which once stood in its place. This is juxtaposed with the rectangular form which comprises the main body of the gallery, and is reminiscent of other, earlier buildings which existed in the Porthmeor area. The building, while being in a modernist style, manages to suggest a sense of continuity with the location and its past, something which can also be said of the art which helped to establish the area’s reputation.
   Evans and Shalev wanted the progression through the interior of the building to reflect something of the experience of visiting the town itself. The various gallery spaces, and the way in which natural light is used within them, is reminiscent of a walk around St Ives, particularly the Downalong area in which the building is situated, with its small, narrow back streets which open unexpectedly into larger, brighter areas, with a glimpse of the sea never far away. Many of the artists whose work is displayed in the Tate lived and worked in the immediate area; Ben Nicholson, for example, had a studio in close proximity to where the gallery now stands, and the gallery’s roof is clearly visible from the cottage which was once occupied by Alfred Wallis. The paintings and sculptures which are exhibited can be seen in direct relation to the environment in which they were executed. This is particularly apparent in the upper and lower terraces of Gallery Two, where there is an impressive view on to Porthmeor Beach through a large, concave window which runs along the length of the gallery. The works which are displayed here can be appreciated in direct relation to the natural landscape which inspired them, while the high quality of light which attracted artists to the West coast of Cornwall is used as natural lighting for the exhibits.
   Changing its displays annually, the gallery shows the work of those artists who helped to establish St Ives as a place of international, artistic importance. While artists had been drawn to the area, and nearby Newlyn, during the nineteenth century, and a St Ives Art Club had been established in 1888, it was the discovery of Alfred Wallis by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood in 1928, which had far-reaching effects on the direction that abstract art took in Britain. Impressed by Wallis’s naive renditions of the town as he perceived it, the artists felt that this retired sailor had captured much in his ‘crude’ style that they were also striving for, namely a sense of artistic simplicity which was formed by personal experience and freed from the adherence to accepted pictorial devices, such as perspective. However, it was not until the start of the Second World War in 1939 that Nicholson, along with his second wife Barbara Hepworth, and the Russian artist, Naum Gabo, moved to the area from London. Nicholson’s paintings, and Hepworth’s sculptures showed their interest in abstract forms which were derived from the local landscape.
   In 1948, the Penwith Society of Artists was formed in opposition to the more traditional work which was being exhibited by the St Ives Society of Artists. Members included Peter Lanyon, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Bryan Wynter alongside the influential figures of Nicholson and Hepworth. It is the work of these artists, and that of others including Terry Frost, Denis Mitchell and John Wells, that the Tate gallery in St Ives features in its exhibition programme. Patrick Heron, one of the original members of the Penwith Society, also designed one of the building’s main features, a large, abstract stained glass window, which illustrates his interest in colour and light. The work of the potter Bernard Leach, who settled in the area in the 1920s, is also well represented in the gallery. While the Tate provides something of a focal point for art produced in, or inspired by, the coastline of west Cornwall, other artistic activities which take place outside of the gallery form an important part of its programme. In 1993 Air, Land & Sea, the first project with which the gallery was involved, was based upon the work of Peter Lanyon. In this joint venture with the Newlyn art gallery, children from local schools examined the way in which Lanyon’s abstract paintings were inspired by his feelings for the Cornish landscape, and they were encouraged to produce work which captured their reactions to, and perceptions of, the local environment. In 1997, St Ives International, a group whose main objective was to manage collaborative arts initiatives in Cornwall, was formed. Their first project, A Quality of Light, involved fourteen contemporary artists from Britain and abroad, and took the area’s distinctive quality of light as the theme for a variety of works. These included pieces which were exhibited in the St Ives Tate Gallery and a number of other venues in the town, including the parish church and the fisherman’s chapel, as well as using one of the historic artist’s studios. The work ranged from paintings to installations and video. The artists also exhibited throughout the region of west Cornwall, including the railway station at Penzance, the Geevor Tin Mine at Pendeen and Land’s End. While interest in the area seemed to fade with Hepworth’s death in 1975, St Ives has continued to have an established artistic community, and the opening of the Tate Gallery has helped to reestablish the area as a centre of international artistic importance.
   See also: painting; Tate(s)
   Further reading
    Cross, T. (1984) Painting the Warmth of the Sun: St Ives Artists 1939-1975, Penzance: Alison Hodge.
    Tooby, M. (1993) Tate St Ives, London: Tate Gallery Publications.
   LUCINDA TOWLER

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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