Thursday, 8 November 2012



held at the American International University in London, Richmond
BY BARRY GARNHAM, art historian


Not knowing what to expect from this, I found the lecture fascinating and Barry an amusing and erudite lecturer.

He  described the history behind Cornwall's  popularity with artists, as it has long been famous for its light.

In the late 19th century, Newlyn became the destination for painters;  there was cheap accommodation due mainly to the decline of the fishing industry, and there were picturesque subjects everywhere;  people's way of life and costumes had not changed much over the last 100 years.  There was a resistance to modernisation and a nostalgia among the intelligentsia for that way of life.


Tiny St Ives followed on from Newlyn.  It became very popular.  Virginia Wolf's book 'To the Lighthouse' was set there.  In the 1920s a  special train brought paintings up the the RA Summer exhibition.
However, Barry pointed out that the well-known painters in St Ives were from everywhere else except Cornwall. Even Arthur Wallis, the naive  painter, was from Devon. The one exception was Peter Lanyon, who was from another part of Cornwall.

The time between the wars attracted many artists but there was a big influx at the time of the Second World War when artists went there to escape the blitz,  particularly from what had been the centre for artists and writers, Hampstead, in North London.

In Hampstead Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth had had a direct hit on their studio, and Ben was instrumental in settling them both in St Ives, which Barbara initially hated.  She was later called 'The Witch of St Ives';  both of them tried to run the artists community and she in particular became unpopular, and began to drink very heavily.

Barry dotted his talk with funny anecdotes, including telling us that whenever a large sculpture piece by Barbara was being transported out of the town for an exhibition, the whole of St Ives ground to a halt - the roads being so steep and narrow.


Following the Nicholsons, the artistic community attracted a large number of 'Young Turks' including John Tunnard, Keith Vaughan, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, William Scott, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron.  The decline of the fishing industry caused the lofts and fishing sheds to be available at low rents, so large studios were there for them to work in.

The main body of the lecture included a large number slides of works by all these men, and of work by artists who influenced them such as Picasso, Leger, Braque, Mondrian, among others.


The potter Bernard Leach also set up a studio in St Ives, despite the impracticality of the site, as there is no clay available locally. Also with Leach was the potter Shoji Hamada. The pottery provided work for some of the painters, including Terry Frost.

St Ives was visited by Clement Greenberg and Mark Rothko, and other Americans who came to see what was going on, and in Rothko's case gain inspiration.

It was a great evening and the large audience was mesmerised, despite the lecture lasting one and a  half hours without a break!