St Ives: The British Avant-Garde

8 - 30 June 2017

Perhaps the most well known of all artistic communities in the British Isles is St Ives which has long been a huge draw for the avant-garde.  At the turn of the 20th century, the Newlyn group of painters with Harold Harvey and Stanhope Forbes made their name with their paintings of the fisherfolk of this Southern-west peninsula.  The Porthmeor studios in St Ives gave the space for artists to work from and it was out here that the St Ives School of Painting grew. St Ives became a magnet for any aspiring and ambitious young artist.  Wilhelmina Barns-Graham for example came to live in St Ives from St Andrews, and Terry Frost from the Midlands. Patrick Heron, born in Leeds, took a studio in Porthmeor and bought a house, Eagles Nest, Zennor, that was to be his painting retreat.  What inspired all of these artists was the light and elemental nature of the Penwith peninsula. Even today, artists are continuously attracted to the rugged coastline and glorious skies that can only been seen in this corner of the British Isles. Nowhere else compares to it in the UK for artistic heritage or the impact it has had on the international art scene.  


Many of the artists who came to St Ives literally wanted to put the elements into their work, some even created collages with bits of sand and beach in their work, such as Sandra Blow.  Other artists focussed on the light, the bobbing boats and the setting sun, such as Terry Frost.  In the 1930s St Ives was at the very centre of the avant-garde scene in Britain as two very important artists - Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson - decided to set up their studios in the town.   Works by both of these artists are in the exhibition.  St Ives soon became a hub for the international avant-garden attracting artists from Paris such as the minimalist Piet Mondrian whose influence proved long lasting.  Hepworth and Nicholson trumpeted the cause of abstract art and were key figures in Unit 1, the Seven and Five Society and the Penrith Society, which were artistic societies that worked collaboratively to encourage members in their practice, much like Art Weeks.  Nicholson is famous for his discovery of the truly naïve painter Alfred Wallis who was a fisherman that painted boats and shipping on pieces of card and board using house paint. The story goes that he and Jim Ede were wandering past Wallis’s house in St Ives and the door was open and they happened upon him painting.  Jim Ede bought Wallis’ work which became the foundation of the Cambridge gallery Kettles Yard.   Kettles Yard’s St Ives collection is of international renown and one of things it does well and provovatively is juxtapose high art with elements from nature so here you will see a wonderful Barbara Hepworth sited across from a very beautiful piece of driftwood.  It is the quest for authenticity that informs Kettles Yard and these artists.   We are delighted to include a wonderful gouache by Stanley Roy Badmin of St Ives in this exhibition which is an exquisitely depicts St Ives around 1955, at the time when many of the other artists in the exhibition were resident and active in the area. It is a beautiful and important historical document of this town.