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What is St Ives Art?

Stanhope Forbes, The Health of the Bride, 1889
Stanhope Forbes
The Health of the Bride 1889
© The estate of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, courtesy Bridgeman Art Library
View in Tate Collection

Forbes was the leader of a group of painters who settled in Newlyn and painted local activities

Artists have been coming to work in St Ives since the nineteenth century. From the 1880s onwards, Newlyn, St Ives and the west Cornwall hinterland were firmly on the map as destinations for artists seeking a quasi-communal way of living and working – on the lines of the continental art colony of Pont-Aven in Brittany – as well as fresh subject matter in the landscape, climate and social realities of this still-remote area of the country.

For more than a century there have been many artists producing realistically observed marine and landscape paintings in a tradition little altered from that established by the Newlyn school. St Ives's place in art history, however, is most firmly identified with a very different kind of art, produced by painters and sculptors working in the modernist tradition and its later offshoots. The term 'St Ives School' has been loosely applied to the succession of painters and sculptors active in west Cornwall from the 1940s onwards, who explored the potential of abstract art and, later, strove to combine abstract formal language with landscape themes and subjects.

Christopher Wood, Boat in Harbour, Brittany, 1929
Christpher Wood
Boat in Harbour, Brittany 1929
View in Tate Collection

The association of St Ives with avant-garde artists began as early as 1925, when Cedric Morris stayed in the town. The paintings he made there were seen by Christopher Wood, who visited St Ives in 1926 and two years later returned in the company of Ben Nicholson. On this visit, in August 1928, the cosmopolitan Wood and Nicholson 'discovered' the self-taught mariner-painter Alfred Wallis, whose work soon attracted attention in sophisticated artistic circles and was profoundly to influence Nicholson in particular.

Modernism became firmly established in St Ives during the Second World War, when Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth settled there, attracting a circle of other modernist artists such as Naum Gabo. These artists shared an intellectual and aesthetic outlook that was essentially European rather than insular, but the work they produced in St Ives was nevertheless often deeply influenced by the physical forms and quality of light of their local surroundings.

Naum Gabo, Circular Relief, c. 1925
Naum Gabo
Circular Relief c. 1925
© Nina Williams
View in Tate Collection

Many of the artists whose names are linked with St Ives have been incomers who have chosen west Cornwall as a place to work, but there have been important exceptions. These include Alfred Wallis who, while often classed as a 'naive' or 'primitive' artist, produced some of the most visually powerful and memorable images ever painted in St Ives. In the post-war generation, the St Ives-born painter Peter Lanyon created a distinctive fusion of landscape and abstract elements, advocating that art could be both technically audacious and rooted in a sense of locality. Nor is art in St Ives simply the story of a succession of talented individual artists who happen to have worked here.

The activities of artistic groups and societies, the concentration of studios and galleries in the town, and the active teaching of varieties of art practice have combined both to reinforce a distinctive tradition and to generate new works and ideas.