Mak­ing Mod­ernism

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

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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’

Left: Bar­bara Hep­worth’s sculp­ture Curved Form (Treval­gan) was in­spired by the lo­cal land­scape sur­round­ing her Cornish home

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

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

Mark Rothko’s Un­ti­tled, painted in the 1950s, is the kind of Amer­i­can ab­stract paint­ing ad­mired by a num­ber of St Ives artists

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