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St Ives School Collage

St Ives School

Started: 1928
Ended: 1960
St Ives School Timeline
"The kind of painting which I find exciting is not necessarily representational or non-representational, but it is musical and architectural... Whether this visual relationship is slightly more or slightly less abstract is, for me, beside the point."
1 of 13
Ben Nicholson Signature
"I'm interested in locating the holy grail of the minimum means to express the most complex ideas."
2 of 13
Ben Nicholson Signature
"It is impossible for me to make a painting which has no reference to the powerful environment in which I live."
3 of 13
Peter Lanyon
"The naturalness of life ... the sense of community is, I think, a very important factor in an artist's life."
4 of 13
Barbara Hepworth Signature
"I have gained very great inspiration from the Cornish land- and seascape, the horizontal line of the sea and the quality of light and colour which reminds me of the Mediterranean light and color which so excites one's sense of form; and first and last there is the human figure which in the country becomes a free and moving part of a greater whole."
5 of 13
Barbara Hepworth Signature
"Whenever I am embraced by land and seascape I draw ideas for new sculptures; new forms to touch and walk around, new people to embrace, with an exactitude of form that those without sight can hold and realize ... It is essentially practical and passionate."
6 of 13
Barbara Hepworth Signature
"The landscape I live among is bare of houses, trees, people; is dominated by winds, by swift changes of weather, by moods of the sea...These elemental forces enter the painting and lend their qualities without becoming motifs."
7 of 13
Bryan Wynter
"The image my work invokes is the image of good - not evil; the image of order - not chaos; the image of life - not death. And that is all the content of my constructions amounts to."
8 of 13
Naum Gabo Signature
"The abstract artist submits himself entirely to the unknown... he is like a man swinging out into the void."
9 of 13
Roger Hilton
"The flavour of words is intensely anti-visual. Strictly speaking painting cannot be written about."
10 of 13
Patrick Heron
"So the landscape was the common factor for all of us, a presence of perpetual power which in its transitoriness reminds us of our own ... any pathway we followed, over moors, or down the shafts of mines, or along the corridors of gales, led only to oneself."
11 of 13
David Lewis
"The untutored painter Alfred Wallis and the potter Bernard Leach were not just neighbours to the artists of St Ives, they were talismanic embodiments of values at the heart of those artists' practice."
12 of 13
Chris Stephens
"Leach's pots and such paintings as Wallis's Houses at St Ives represented a timeless, non‑metropolitan culture - a kind of authenticity that contrasted with the knowing sophistication of mainstream culture."
13 of 13
Chris Stephens

Summary of St Ives School

The St Ives School was a name given to a cadre of artists who lived and worked in the picturesque Cornish coastal town that came to international prominence after World War Two. Having settled in the area during the war years, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and the Russian émigré Naum Gabo, transformed St Ives into a hub for a new British avant-garde. They attracted many younger abstract artists to the area, and though their formal approaches fluctuated between semi and pure abstraction, members of the St Ives School took their inspiration from the unique West Cornwall landscape, using its shapes, natural surroundings and colors to inspire their individual visions. Once Abstract art had been overtaken by Pop Art in the 1960s, the St Ives School was winding down but its proud legacy is kept alive today through the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculptural Gardens, opened in her previous studio in 1980, and through the Tate St Ives gallery which opened in 1993 and takes pride of place on its seafront.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • The St Ives School (though in point of fact it was never a formal School) owes its inception to one Alfred Willis, an elderly Cornish mariner. Wallis's unrefined, almost child-like, seascapes, which he painted onto raw materials such as cardboard and driftwood, provided the stimulation for a community of artist who were inspired by the raw honesty of his painting and a rare authenticity that captured Wallis's innate affinity with his natural environment.
  • Hepworth and Nicholson, arrived in St Ives with the goal of initiating the next phase of modernism. Calling on the principals of Constructivism, Cubism, and De Stijl, they achieved their goal (and inspired others to follow) by harnessing the unique shapes, patterns and lighting conditions of England's south-western coastline.
  • Hepworth's abstract sculptures were characterized by flowing, circular forms and she developed a deep connection with St Ives, taking fresh inspiration (unlike her fellow sculptor Gabo, who focused all his energies on purely formal matters) from the natural forms of the Cornish landscape including seashells, crashing waves, and ragged rock formations.
  • Nicholson's work explored the dividing line between realism and abstraction. His still lifes and landscapes took on the influence of Cubism and De Stijl while capturing something of the makeshift quality of Wallis's pictorial work. Nicholson would have a profound influence on the younger St Ives painters such as Patrick Heron and Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham.
  • Though works could be realist - Heron, for instance, produced several views of St Ives using heightened colors and bold lines - generally speaking the School moved more and more towards abstraction. Heron took on the influence of Abstract Expressionists, and particularly Mark Rothko's saturated passages of color, which he employed to condense the essence of the coastal town onto a two-dimensional surface. Painters such as Peter Lanyon, on the other hand, used a wide range of colors to capture the energy of the Cornish coast.

Overview of St Ives School

Contemporary photograph of the coastal town of St Ives.

For the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, it was only when she was "embraced by the land and seascape" of St Ives that she gained "practical and passionate" inspiration for works she modelled "with an exactitude of form that those without sight can hold and realize".

Do Not Miss

  • Russian Constructivism emerged with the Revolution of 1917 and sought a new approach to making objects, one which abolished the traditional concern with composition and replaced it with 'construction,' which called for a new attention to the technical character of materials. It was hoped that these inquiries would yield ideas for mass production. The movement was an important influence on geometric abstraction.
  • Cubism was developed by Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque between 1907-1911, and it continued to be highly influential long after its decline. This classic phase has two stages: 'Analytic', in which forms seem to be 'analyzed' and fragmented; and 'Synthetic', in which pre-existing materials such as newspaper and wood veneer are collaged to the surface of the canvas.
  • A vast number of major modern artists in the West were greatly influenced by art they deemed 'primitive' or 'naïve', made by tribal or non-Western cultures. Such art, ranging from African, Oriental, Oceanic, and Native American to naive depictions of the French peasantry, was thought to be less civilized and thus closer to raw aesthetic and spiritual experience.
  • The British Isles have been hosts to some of the most important art movements and have produced top modern and contemporary artists.

Important Art and Artists of St Ives School

Five Ships, Mounts Bay (1928)

Artist: Alfred Wallis

Alfred Wallis captures the turbulent energy of the Cornish sea in this painting, with frothy passages of paint that seem to flicker in the light. Tiny fishing vessels drawn with black, spidery lines seem fragile and insignificant in the face of the sea's unstoppable energy. Scattered lighthouses suggest a glimmer of human life, but they are painted with loose, watery paint as if they might collapse at any moment.

Having spent much of his early adult life working as a fisherman in the Cornish coastlines, Wallis knew the mariner's life inside-out, and his unsophisticated paintings capture the perilous nature of life at sea with huge, dangerous waves and fragile boats caught in their majesty. Wallis came to painting later in life (at the age of 70) and was entirely self-taught. This gave his paintings a naïve folk-art look, characterized by broad areas of flat color and thick black contours, painted onto rough scraps of wood or cardboard. Wallis made this painting in 1928, the same year that he was visited and "discovered" by the London-based artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher "Kit" Wood. Nicholson was particularly enamoured with the simple, rugged and untutored style of Wallis's art and he helped launch the Cornishman's career within his lively circle of artistic friends in London. Wallis's innate, almost spiritual, connection with St Ives was also a great source of inspiration for the wider group of artists that would settle in the Cornish town in the post-war period.

Linear Construction No. 1 (1942-3)

Artist: Naum Gabo

In this light, elemental sculpture, long, thin strands of transparent nylon are stretched through space, curving into and over one another to create a complex network of lines. The strings are pulled taut in directional lines to form an elliptical opening in the centre, from where lines seem to extend outwards into infinity, representing the vast and unfathomably complex stretches of the universe.

Naum Gabo made this sculpture after moving from Russia to the United Kingdom in 1935 and residing throughout the Second World War in St Ives. He was already an established figure within the Russian Constructivist movement, and was well-known for his abstract, sculptural innovations that explored themes of motion, form, and tension in space. While living in Cornwall, however, he pioneered the use of plastic, exploring its lucid, weightless qualities in a series of complex architectural constructions. Themes of space and time were central to his practice, as intricate linear arrangements made reference to the infinite structures of the universe. Art critic Herbert Read noted how his sculptures exist "between the visible and the invisible, the material and the immaterial [reaching] the crystallization of the purest sensibility".

Unlike other St Ives School artists, Gabo's did not draw on his natural surroundings. He did, however, extend a profound influence over the St Ives movement throughout the 1940s and 1950s with his radical abstractions informing the practice of a younger generation of artists including Wilhelmina Barnes Graham, Peter Lanyon, and Patrick Heron.

Still Life, June 16-47 (1947)

Artist: Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson explores the boundaries between realism and abstraction in this light, ephemeral still life. Skeletal outlines of familiar objects are drawn onto a textured surface, as if floating weightlessly in space above it. The low-relief quality created through layering flat planes and lines on top of one another recalls the radical Cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, while black contours and solid blocks of pure, unmixed color reveal the influence of Piet Mondrian.

Nicholson made this work during an especially creative period in his life. It followed the end of the Second World War when he had settled in the St Ives area with his second wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. The work typifies Nicholson's work of the period, which moved away from his earlier, avant-garde abstraction by re-introducing elements of realism such as still life and landscape subjects. British architect David Lewis notes how even in his still life works, landscape was a dominant force, observing how "the intersecting outlines of bottles, jugs and wine glasses ... was landscape".

Within the St Ives community, Nicholson's work bridged a gap between the more traditional landscapes of locals and the experimental abstraction of Constructivism, Cubism, and De Stijl. The gritty surface of Nicholson's work ties his practice with the local artist Alfred Wallis, whose dirty, uneven surfaces had a crude brutality that seemed to reflect the harsh realities of living at sea, a quality Nicholson wished to invoke. He made this surface by scraping it with a sharp blade, leaving behind veils of color. Nicholson found great success with this new style of art in the decades to follow, and his oscillation between traditional realism and radical abstraction had a profound and long-lasting influence on the younger St Ives artists including Patrick Heron and Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham.

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Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"St Ives School Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Rosie Lesso
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 05 Mar 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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