As the golden era of St Ives art
slips further from living memory, and as the town loses its original
character, it becomes necessary to dig deeper, and try harder, to bring to
life the spirit and energy of the modern movement, and the personalities that
Michael Bird, in his new book, The St Ives Artists: a biography of time
and place, succeeds in doing so by
showing the kind of obsessive eye for detail possessed by only the most
dedicated fan. His love and devotion to St Ives and its artists permeates the
book, which adds texture and fine-grained detail to the standard historical
account, whilst sprinkling it with added spice in the form of gossip,
speculation and anecdote.
It is not really a book for someone who is completely new to St Ives art, and
it assumes the reader already has at least some superficial familiarity with
the art in question. It has no images of paintings and the twenty or so
plates are, mainly, black and white portraits of the artists in question.
This does not detract from the enjoyment of the book, however, and it is
fitting given that Bird set out to write a narrative, and to place that
narrative within a wider context of the social changes occurring in Britain
between 1930s and 1960s. It turns out to be a compelling and complex story,
that, like the streets of St Ives itself, takes many detours despite only
concentrating on 10 or so artists.
The account begins in 1946 with Terry Frost arriving, penniless with his
wife, before, in the next chapter moving to describing the 'discovery' of
Alfred Wallis and the talismanic and revolutionary role he played in the
early days of the modernist colony:
For forty years
the town had been full of painters: in all this time
no one seemed
to have asked any awkward questions about what
art was for
or what forms other than academic naturalism, it
Bird relates in detail the Hampstead connection that linked a number of
important figures immediately before the war, including Herbert Read, and why
so many of these figures subsequently opted to move to Cornwall. The bohemian lifestyles of the second
generation painters, eg Bryan Wynter, are conveyed vividly in the next
chapter called 'Landscape with Wild Men'. According to Bird, they adopted 'a lifestyle that was
not just mock primitive but actually so'. For Wynter, 'Penwith's....exposure
to the elements...seemed to connote the Freudian Id: source of the primal
desires that Western civilisation sought to suppress'.
There is a chapter on the formation of the Penwith Society in St Ives, and
the Festival of Britain in 1951. Bird explains that this celebration of
nationhood, to which a number of the St Ives artists contributed, occurred at
a time of austerity when rationing was still in force and many of the
buildings damaged during the war remained derelict.
In chapter seven we learn in detail about the general antipathy to modern art
in wider British society as typified by caricatures in Kingsley Amis' Lucky
Jim, and the fact that it was still
linked in many peoples mind with a moneyed elite. To a degree, Bird concurs:
'How many painters in the history of St
Ives could have disavowed the essential role played by private wealth in
underwriting their art?'
The next chapter describes the challenges to St Ives art that came from
within the art world as well, first by John Berger, the Marxist critic and
champion of realism, and later by Lawrence Alloway and the Independent Group.
Patrick Heron, arguably more important as a critic than as an artist at this
stage, responds initially by recruiting American abstract expressionism to
the cause, though is not completely fulsome in his praise for its artists: 'he
seemed gripped by a perverse determination to feminise these thrusting, manly
There is an interesting chapter dedicated to the female artists of the St
Ives movement, particularly Sandra Blow and Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham. Bird
then describes how the 1960s saw the St Ives artists going in new directions,
Ben Nicholson moving to Switzerland, Wynter experimenting with mescaline and
Lanyon taking up gliding, only to then be fatally injured.
The final chapter is extremely poignant and details how Roger Hilton moved to
Botallack in 1965, despite being settled, happy and successful in London, and
there he appeared to descend into alcoholism with his drinking partner, the
poet Sydney Graham. Here, Bird's narrative approach works better than any
more academic book could in bringing out the humanity and pathos in the
relationship between the two men, summarised in the poem 'Lines on Roger
Hiltons watch', 'which I was given because / I loved him and we had /
terrible times together.
Rupert White 2008
Rupert White is the editor of Art Cornwall http://www.artcornwall.org