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St Ives School Collage

St Ives School - History and Concepts

Started: 1928
Ended: 1960
St Ives School Timeline

Beginnings of St Ives School

St Ives, Cornwall. Home to a post-war British avant-garde

The St Ives School took their name from the coastal town of St Ives, Cornwall, a county on the South Western tip of England. Following the opening of the Great Western railway in 1877 (putting the resort within easy reach of London), St Ives became a place of pilgrimage for many painters who were drawn to the unique quality of its natural light. Artists such as James Abbott McNeill Whistler and Walter Sickert were amongst those who descended on the town in order to paint its sparkling sea views and dramatic jagged coastline. Many painters exhibited their Cornish vistas at the Parisian Salon and London's Royal Academy at the end of the nineteenth century and this exposure did much to open up the area to a wider pool of artists and tourists.

St Ives soon gave rise to a variety of local clubs and societies including the St Ives Club, founded in 1890, and the St Ives Society of Artists, established in 1927. The pioneering pottery artist Bernard Leach founded a studio in St Ives with Japanese artist Shoji Hamada in the 1920s, while painter and teacher Leonard Fuller opened his own private School of Painting in a studio space in the Porthmeor area of St Ives. In 1928, London-based artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher "Kit" Wood made a visit to St Ives, where they encountered by chance the work of local, retired mariner and artist Alfred Wallis. Both artists were inspired by the fresh, naïve and unschooled simplicity of Wallis's coastal scenes, painted as they were onto loose scraps of paper and on found driftwood. Nicholson described his pleasure in discovering Wallis's work thus: "this was an exciting day, for not only was it the first time I saw St. Ives, but on the way back from Porthmeor Beach we passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall".

Over the following years Nicholson became an avid collector and promoter of Wallis's art, displaying it in his London home and promoting it amongst his circle of friends, including the artist Margaret Mellis and her husband, the art critic Adrian Stokes. The style of Wallis's painting came to influence Nicholson's own practice and that of his friends in London, including Nicholson's first wife, Winifred Nicholson.

St Ives: A World War II Hideout

When the Second World War broke out (in 1939), many artists fled London to escape the bombing. Mellis and Stokes were the first to make the move to St Ives, and they were soon joined by Nicholson and his second wife, the renowned British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, and the Russian Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo. These metropolitan voices brought with them ideas about avant-garde abstraction which they shared amongst the local artist's community. Both Hepworth and Nicholson had previously made visits to Paris where they took inspiration from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brâncuși, Jean Arp, Georges Braque, and Piet Mondrian. Gabo, on the other hand, was a pioneer in Russian Constructivist kinetic sculpture, and he brought these ideas to the St Ives scene.

Movement during wartime was restricted, and art materials scarce, making these years relatively sterile. But by the end of the war in 1945, Nicholson, Hepworth, and Gabo emerged as figureheads for a new generation of artists who had started to combine St Ives's coastal colors, shapes, and forms with the languages of Russian Constructivism, Fauvism, Cubism, and Expressionism. Art critic and curator David Lewis, himself a member of the St Ives community, pointed out how the landscape became the unifying force for creatives working in a wide range of styles: "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".

The Penwith Society

View across Porthmeor Beach in St Ives, where members of the Penwith Society set up artist studios in a renovated a fishing loft.

Though artistic styles within the community of St Ives were diverse, an acrimonious split occurred between the more traditional, established locals, who focussed on conventional portrayals of the Cornish landscape, and the newly arrived radicals who favored a progressive modernism. This divide was compounded when the modernists established their own society, called the Crypt Group, which was named after the crypt of a local church where various exhibitions were staged. By 1949 the Crypt Group had evolved into the Penwith Society, with its own large exhibition space at Fore Street in the heart of the town. Hepworth was instrumental in establishing the Porthmeor Studio spaces in an old pilchard factory near Porthmeor beach where many members of the Society worked.

Leading members of the Penwith Society were Hepworth, Nicholson, and Gabo and they were joined by younger artists including Peter Lanyon and Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham. Eminent art critic and champion of modern art Herbert Read was appointed group president. This core group of leading modernists created a lively, bustling community and encouraged artists, writers, and curators from further afield to come and visit throughout the 1950s. Some of these offered up funding for events and exhibitions. Notable visitors to the area included British painter Francis Bacon, who borrowed Nicholson's studio for three months, and the American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko, who was invited to stay by artist Paul Feiler in 1958.

The St Ives Movement

Throughout the 1950s the face of the St Ives Group began to change. Gabo left Cornwall in 1946, and Nicholson moved on in the late-1950s. Hepworth remained something of a figurehead for the School, but by now a new generation of artists, including Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Paul Feiler, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Karl Weschke, John Wells, and Bryan Wynter, were taking hold of the reins. Indeed, it is this "second-wave" group that is most-commonly associated with the name St Ives School.

Although their formal approaches differed, the group were united in a shared appreciation of their unique environment which could be integrated into deconstructed modernist styles. They instigated long-lasting breakthroughs in the development of British and European modernism by taking on the influences of previous and contemporary international styles. For instance, Peter Lanyon's expressive, energised abstractions were directly influenced by the Abstract Expressionist paintings of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, while Heron's crude, geometric colors shared parallels with American artist Sam Francis and Russian-French painter Nicolas de Staël. Barnes-Graham was one of only a few women associated with the group but her elemental, glacial rock faces, drawn with skeletal lines and crude slabs of color, were fixed within the traditions of European abstraction.

Art Historian Charles Harrison argues that the secluded nature of St Ives allowed for radical, experimental approaches that were more difficult to practice in more visible post-war urban cities, providing an obscure oasis where almost anything was possible. He observed, "Under the cultural conditions that prevailed not simply in England but in Europe during the war and its aftermath - an unadulterated modernist culture could only continue in rustication".

An International Focus

Vintage postcard illustrating the large-scale Festival of Britain display at The South Bank Centre in London in 1951. The festival celebrated work by leading British artists and designers and promoted British culture in the wake of the Second World War.

The 1951 Festival of Britain, a huge showcase to promote excellence in British art and design, gave exposure to many of the St Ives School's founding members including Hepworth, Nicholson, Lanyon, and Frost. Hepworth in particular received widespread global recognition throughout these years as she pushed her sculptural innovations to new heights with prominent displays at the Venice Biennale and public art commissions for New York and Japan while continuing to live and work in St Ives.

Dramatic changes in British culture throughout the 1960s undoubtedly influenced the shape of art coming out of St Ives as mass media and rebellious counter cultures gradually took center stage. Driven by the rise in Pop Art across Europe and the United States, artists including William Scott, Peter Lanyon, and Bryan Wynter moved into a cleaner, flatter, and more graphic style. Lanyon incorporated found collage into his art, while Heron abandoned abstraction for figuration. But by the 1960s the dominance of landscape-based ideas practiced by the St Ives School were being eclipsed, while the deaths of several St Ives members including Hepworth, Wynter, and Hilton in the 1970s conclusively signalled the end of an era.

Concepts and Styles

Alfred Wallis and Naïve Art

Alfred Wallis came to art later in life, having spent much of his early years working as a fisherman in the deepest stretches of the ocean. He retired from fishing and settled in St Ives in 1890 while in his mid-30s, setting up a marine rag and bone business selling odds and ends to local fishermen. It wasn't until 1925 that Wallis, then aged 70, came to painting, making rough, expressive studies of the St Ives area in industrial paints including harbour scenes and seascapes with a fluid, simplified language. Much of his work was made on irregular scraps of cardboard, pieces of wood and old jars, lending it a crude, artisanal quality that seemed innately bound to the raggedy landscape of Cornwall.

Wallis's lack of formal training and artistic pretentions made him immensely appealing to the St Ives School who sought ways of emulating the child-like simplicity of his style. Nicholson and Christopher Wood's "discovery" of Wallis's art in the late 1920s led to a surge of interest in the ex-mariner's paintings, as Nicholson and Wood promoted Wallis's paintings amongst the London avant-garde. When the artistic colony of St Ives expanded in the post-war years, there remained an ongoing romance with Wallis's practice. Even so, Wallis was a modest man who never fully connected with the modernists of St Ives and referred to them in fact as the "real painters" of St Ives.

Of all the St Ives artists, Nicholson was perhaps the most profoundly moved by the untutored freedom in Wallis's landscapes. Prior to discovering Wallis's art he had moved away from pure abstraction towards naturalism, but Nicholson had been searching for a way to express reality with a fresh, modernist language. Taking inspiration from Wallis's simplified style, he began painting with flattened shapes, slanted angles, and uneven textures from the late 1920s until the 1940s, as seen in the painting such as 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) (1943-5).

Though she never moved to St Ives, Nicholson's first wife, Winifred Nicholson, painted throughout the 1930s with a naïve style also influenced by Wallis. The crude, expressive energy of Wallis's art also had a profound impact on Margaret Mellis's paintings and constructions, and, like Wallis, she often painted her subjects onto scraps of torn paper and carboard, echoing his unpretentious approach. But it was also the way Wallis's art seemed innately bound to place that left the most indelible imprint on Nicholson and his contemporaries. Nicholson observed with fascination how Wallis's art seemed like "something that has grown out of the Cornish seas and earth and which will endure".

The Cornish Landscape

The Cornish landscape, with its wild, rugged, naturalism, was undoubtedly one of the key uniting forces of the artists who congregated in St Ives. Nicholson and Barnes Graham both worked gradually towards a refined, spatial abstraction that emulated the soft, sandy hues and sparkling aqua blues of the Cornish coast, suggesting craggy outlines of rocks with crisp shards of line. Margaret Mellis, on the other hand, was an avid collector of driftwood, collecting scraps of worn-down driftwood from old fishing boats and arranging them into loose, haphazard arrangements where colors and textures jostle against one another. Patrick Heron was also profoundly moved by Cornish light and colors, observed from his clifftop studio that looked out across the sea and moors beyond: "This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting", he said. He captured the wild tangles of colour and energy around him with flat pattern and vivid, heightened colour, as seen in such works as Harbour Window with Two Figures: St Ives, (1950).

Modernist Sculpture: Hepworth and Gabo

Both Hepworth and Gabo made a series of important advances in sculpture while resident in St Ives. Hepworth was, by the 1940s, already an established artist with a reputation for making organic, sinuous sculptures through the intuitive, improvised process of "direct carving" which allowed the work to evolve naturally in response to the materials. The landscape of Cornwall chimed well with her interest in naturalism and she began making abstract sculptures inspired by her natural surroundings. Much of her work was a deeply personal, intuitive response to her encounters with nature, but it also tapped into formal concerns about interior and exterior space and the pure spirituality of form. Sweeping curves and ovals in works such as Pelagos (1946), and Curved Form (Trevalgan) (1956), collapse references to shells, waves, caves and curved coastlines into a minimalist whole, while inner, taut passages of string explore what Hepworth called "the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills".

For his part, the Russian émigré Gabo was a highly respected member of the Russian Constructivist movement before his relocation to England. When in St Ives he was able to continue developing his avant-garde ideas around kinetics, construction, and the spatial interplay of forms. Here Gabo pioneered the use of plastic in sculpture, producing minimalist pieces from a series of clear panels. Conflicting inner and outer elements was paramount to his practice, as exemplified in Construction in Space with Crystalline Centre (1938-40), where the inner core seems suspended "mid-action" and in mid-air. Gabo's practice bore little resemblance to the Cornish landscape, however, and was concerned rather with concepts of movement, tension, and space.

Pure Abstraction

The provincial setting of St Ives allowed artists who moved there to freely indulge their passion for formal experimentation. Their work offered a counterpoint to the gritty, urban concerns of post-war modernism; what art historian Charles Harrison identified as "patriotism, nationalism, xenophobia, insularity and angst which was [being] expressed in Graham Sutherland's work and then in Francis Bacon's". Indeed, much of the art made in St Ives during the 1940s and 1950s took the form of two- and three-dimensional abstractions.

Before the outbreak of World War Two, Nicholson and Hepworth had spent time mingling with the avant-garde elite of Europe and had witnessed first-hand the evolution of geometricized movements, notably Cubism and De Stijl. The De Stijl notion of spiritual purity and utopianism were particularly influential on both artists, and Piet Mondrian's spirit rippled throughout Nicholson's low-relief painterly constructions, and Hepworth's circular forms and holes. Patrick Heron, who proclaimed that all art could be considered abstract, explored Cubist principles through interlaced patterns of color that captured the sensations of light and space in two dimensions.

The emergence of Abstract Expressionism displaced De Stijl and Cubism as the bigger influence on the St Ives School. Roger Hilton, who had initially followed the lead of Mondrian by painting in controlled whites, reds, and blacks, had, by the mid-1950s, begun to absorb the influence of Abstract Expressionism through his shift towards energetic gestural brushwork. Peter Lanyon's Cubist inspired paintings, which were made as part of a series of "experiential landscapes" combining multiple views within a single canvas, gave way to broad, sweeping strokes of heightened color which captured the spiritual essence and natural phenomena of the Cornish coastline. The German Paul Feiler also revealed the influence of Abstract Expressionism, and especially that of his friend, Mark Rothko through his "block" paintings of the 1950s. Feiler transformed the south west coastline through narrow bands of colour and square and circular shapes, while Bryan Wynter, who was fascinated with abstract, elemental forces, spiritualism, and the natural environment, expressed himself through lively, sweeping strokes of animated color.

Later Developments - After St Ives School

Tate St Ives, a museum space established by Tate in 1993 to celebrate the region of St Ives and its ongoing legacy.

The Tate Gallery played a vital role in preserving the legacy of the St Ives School. Following Barbara Hepworth's tragic death by fire in her Trewyn studio in 1975, Tate Gallery restored the former site into the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden which opened to the public in 1980. London Tate's survey exhibition St Ives: Twenty-Five Years of Painting, Sculpture and Pottery in 1985, did much to renew interest in the School and, in 1988, a building was chosen on the site of a former gasworks overlooking Porthmeor Beach and the Atlantic Ocean for Tate St Ives. Funded by donations from the local community, the Henry Moore Foundation and the European Regional Development Fund, Tate Gallery, St Ives opened in 1993. Such was its success (with an estimated quarter-of-a-million visitors per annum) a refurbish and extend (doubling the exhibition space) Tate St Ives opened in 2017.

Although he distanced himself from the modernist group, Alfred Wallis has proved an enduring influence on future generations. Andrew Lanyon (son of Peter) works across various media including photography, painting and film, paying tribute to the unique atmosphere of St Ives and the rich historical significance of the place in British cultural history. Los Angeles painter Danny Fox, who was born in St Ives, cites the simplified, flattened designs, crude materials and bold colors of Wallis's art as the primary influence on his illustrative paintings and wooden constructions.

The pioneering British style of modernism that continued in St Ives throughout the post-war period has influenced a number of artists since. These include British painter Tomma Abts, whose muted colors and low-relief illusionism bears a close resemblance to Nicholson's abstraction. The semi-figurative, geometric abstraction of artists such as Lanyon and Heron have been taken up in recent years by British artist Tony Swain, who combines newspaper excerpts with painterly passages of paint. The British painter Dexter Dalwood, also merges a language of collage with paint.

Meanwhile, The South-Korean artist Haegue Yang works with a range of found materials to create immersive, site-specific installations that hover between realism and abstraction. She recently produced a body of work inspired by the St Ives coastline for display at Tate St Ives, observing of the natural landscape in Cornwall, "I felt so exposed to nature and the local cultural and sacred landscapes. Sentimental, melancholic, even romantic feelings overwhelmed me - tough and rough, sometimes dangerous, as well as mystical".

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.

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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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