Tate St Ives’s new extension has created space for a more complete story to be told about the town’s artistic colony, finds Ruth Guilding
Ruth Guilding visits Tate St Ives
ALMOST everything connected with Modern art in St Ives is rooted in the dynastic partnership of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. By the early 1950s, the art colony that they had pioneered here was becoming established, but it was Alan Bowness, the young art historian who married their daughter Sarah in 1957 and went on to become director of the Tate in London, who helped to engineer its fame and success.
The Cornish outpost of the Tate that opened in 1993 was his brainchild and the Tate’s acquisition of Hepworth’s nearby Trewyn studio and garden was another of the family’s pragmatic and strategic acts of philanthropy. Now, after years of behindthe-scenes planning and manoeuvring, Tate St Ives has at last reopened with a new extension that provides a highly satisfactory solution to an insatiable public appetite for the art of St Ives.
Before the Tate opened its doors here in 1993, arty visitors to the town had made do with a handful of private galleries, Barbara Hepworth’s studio and the collective that Hepworth and Nicholson had founded in 1948, the Penwith Society of Arts. The new Tate St Ives was an ugly but spatially successful building on the circular footprint of a defunct gas works, with a curved façade jettied in an exhilarating arc over Porthmeor Beach. It proved an instant success, but the mass consumption of public art had already outgrown predictions.
The Modernism that came out of St Ives and that was once so radical had been normalised by time and familiarity, as well as by postcard and mouse-mat reproductions of Alfred Wallis’s folksy marine paintings, the ‘mug and flowers on windowsill’ townscapes of Ben Nicholson and his first wife, Winifred, and Peter Lanyon’s airy land-
scapes. Within a few years, 200,000 visitors were arriving here every year to cram into a space designed for 70,000.
Now, at last, there is the scope to tell the story of Modernism in St Ives properly. A trade-off with local-authority housing on the gallery’s western side enabled Jamie Fobert Architects to burrow sideways and backwards into the granite cliff on which the gallery sits, producing a giant hangarlike gallery for temporary exhibitions. This toplit, semi-underground space has loadings and volumes tailored to the large and heavy bravura works that the 21st century is creating.
A grand building project like this was bound to be controversial in densely built St Ives, but, from the road below, the new extension can hardly be seen. At the back of the site, its politely utilitarian silhouette is clad in ceramic tiles whose blue-green colour has been delicately matched to the panorama of sea and sky beyond.
Immediately inside the Tate, nothing much has changed. Visitors ascend by the same spiral staircase, but now follow a clockwise circuit through the old display galleries. The difference is that now these rooms are dedicated to a permanent display explaining the histories and ideas of the artists working in this far-western tip of Britain, as it moved ‘from an industrial to a creative inheritance,’ as the gallery’s new director, Anne Barlow, puts it.
Past visitors were both overcrowded and underwhelmed by a sometimes perverseseeming exhibitions programme leaning towards the progressive, the contemporary and the non-indigenous at the expense of the homegrown. Now, where once there was a thinner crop of pictures hung at eye level or ‘on the line’ in neutral surroundings, we experience a rich renaissance of sculptures, ceramics, drawings, paintings and archive material in vitrines, a few on loan, but the majority brought from the stores of the mothership in London.
The first of these galleries is hung with showstoppers, large grandiloquent works by Patrick Heron (Green and Purple Painting with Blue Disc: May 1960), Peter Lanyon (Porthleven, 1951) and Sir Terry
Frost (Mars and Linen, 1961), introducing ‘Modern Art and St Ives’. In the 1960s, these illustrious names were still the struggling, rising generation, but lucky enough to be members of the exclusively male squad that Alan Bowness termed his ‘First Eleven’ and promoted to a sceptical wider world. Now, the philosophy of this group hang has altered in one crucial particular, to include women.
A huge, rather effortful canvas by Sandra Blow, Selva Oscura (1993), fills the wall opposite the explosive scarlet-and-black
February 1954 by her friend Roger Hilton, demon king of expressive mark-making. Blow’s work, painted some 30 years later, has had to wait a little longer to take its place in the canon and its worked-over surface seems eloquent of human endeavour.
Hepworth, who stayed on in the town after Nicholson’s desertion and divorce in 1951 until her death in 1975, is very present, too. She is represented by Curved
Form (Trevalgan) (1956), a sculpture redolent of the spirit of place, named after a hill near her home in St Ives where (as she described it) ‘the cliffs divide as they touch the sea facing west’.
Lest she appear over-represented (for the Tate acquired her Palais de Dance workshop in the town in 2015 and her studio has belonged to it since 1980), there are a dozen other women to consider: Margaret Mellis, first wife of the painter-critic Adrian Stokes; Winifred Nicholson; the maverick Ithell Colquhoun, who lived at Lamorna; Jessica Dismorr, one of only two women members of the Vorticist movement; and the cross-dressing Marlow Moss, whose once-slight reputation as a pasticheur of
Mondrians has now been hastily re-evaluated. Until very recently, most had remained semi-invisible or been eclipsed by the reputations of male partners or practitioners.
Thanks to the sheer quantity of the work on show and the minor pieces set alongside St Ives’s greatest hits, there are dozens of new instances of the competition and plagiarism raging within this small community. Wilhelmina Barns-graham’s naïve landscape
Island Sheds, St Ives, No.1 (1940) reveals how she was teaching herself the building blocks of Modernism by paying homage to the naïve folk art of Alfred Wallis just as Ben and Winifred Nicholson were doing at the same time. Painted a few years later, Ben Nicholson’s view over the town St Ives, Cornwall (1943–5) shows him pulling sharply ahead on the journey to total abstraction.
We can also judge for ourselves what those artists, who came out of a more hands-on, artisan tradition, brought to the table. There is the fine geometric precision of Linear Construction No. 2 (1970–1) by Naum Gabo, the émigré artist whose engineering skills were quickly assimilated by Hepworth when she began to add strings and wires to her sculptures in 1939, the year that Gabo became her lodger. There is a heft to the early work of Terry Frost, who started his working life in a bicycle shop, following it with a stint at Armstrong Whitworth, the engineering and armaments manufacturing company in Coventry.
For contrast, there is the flat, graceful pattern blocking of Patrick Heron, who had practised making designs for his father’s silk-scarf company, Cresta, when he was in
‘Now, at last, there is the scope to tell the story of Modernism in St Ives properly
his early teens. Azalea Garden: May 1956, painted at Eagles Nest, his house near St Ives, just as he was reinventing himself as an abstract painter, closely resembles the company’s trademark contemporary designs. Barns-graham’s Rock Forms
(St Just) (1953) reveals that she was translating close studies of natural forms into abstraction, mining similar themes to Lanyon (with whom she was a founding member of a splinter association of Modernists known as the Crypt Group).
Rather than perpetuating the old myth of St Ives as an isolated, self-contained community, the new space allows for coverage of European art between the World Wars and the artistic exchanges between London, Europe and St Ives. A painting by Piet Mondrian is hung with a white relief by Nicholson, a sculpture of three smooth geometric marble forms by Hepworth and a small work by Mondrian’s associate, Marlow Moss.
British Modernism owes its development in no small part to the emigré artists who came to St Ives to escape the Second World War and cross-pollinated with the Londoners here, as well as the postwar internationalism encouraged by Alan Bowness and his critic friends in the late 1950s and 1960s, when Bowness was acting as a talent scout in the town. Mondrian’s grids and blocks of pure colour would transform the painting style of Roger Hilton when he saw the Dutchman’s work in Amsterdam in 1953 and the over-thinking of Lanyon’s West Penwith (1949) would change into something more epic and portentous after he visited the west coast of America and adopted the cocksure egotism of Abstract Expressionism.
Similarly, William Scott would learn how to broaden his limited pictorial range to achieve huge floating sheets of colour after looking at works by Mark Rothko, represented here by Untitled (1950–2), in graduated tones of warm yellow.
Overall, a new spirit of inclusiveness prevails. Dennis Mitchell, Hepworth’s one-time studio assistant, has been elevated to the first division, his tall bronze sculpture
Turning Form (1959), describing rising thermals or sea birds circling above a cliff, given a place at one end of the Tate’s curved seaward gallery, with the panorama of Porthmeor’s surf behind it. There are even a few examples from the Troika art pottery founded by Leslie Illsley—the inexpensive alternative to Bernard Leach’s work—displayed in a new archive-cum-studio space at the rear of the gallery.
The Tate’s new exhibition hall is showing the work of the international sculptor Rebecca Warren in a salute to Hepworth’s towering legacy: tall, phallic bronze figures with surfaces resembling melted wax, some ornamented with ribbons and pompoms. Miss Warren makes no claims to respond to the spirit of this place as Hepworth’s sculptures do: her figures are described as patriarchs or shades of the ancient Greek underworld and disposed in loose clusters to remind us of pagan standing stones, ancient totems or, perhaps, Hepworth’s monumental The Family of Man.
In the last gallery before the exit and the shop, the Tate’s curators have been unable to resist a final pedagogic tease. A literalseeming, pretty little seagoing canvas by Alfred Wallis, The Voyage to Labrador (1935–36), is paired with a bewildering fictional video installation, A Journey that
Wasn’t, to drive home the lesson that Wallis never voyaged to Canada and may even have been a deceitful landlubber posing as an ancient mariner.
It is good to see that, on the floor above, the cafe window still frames its picturepostcard view of tumbled, lichened-stained roofs, church tower, harbour and sea: the quaint old town of St Ives that Ben Nicholson saw and recorded nearly 100 years ago.
‘The new space allows for coverage of European art between the World Wars’
In Island Sheds No. 1, Wilhelmina Barns-graham chose a subtle palette of greys to convey the atmosphere of St Ives on a gloomy day in the 1940s
West Penwith by Cornish painter Peter Lanyon is a semi-abstract vision of the coastal landscape
Left: Sandra Blow’s Vivace provides an explosion of colour. Above: A selection of Rebecca Warren’s sculptures on show in the ‘All That Heaven Allows’ exhibition
The roof of the new extension is a public space where people can sit and enjoy magnificent sea views
Left: Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture Curved Form (Trevalgan) was inspired by the local landscape surrounding her Cornish home
Mark Rothko’s Untitled, painted in the 1950s, is the kind of American abstract painting admired by a number of St Ives artists