6 Places That Tell Stories of the St Ives Art Scene

During the 1940s and 50s, many of Britain’s leading artists congregated in St Ives.

What followed were sculptures, sceneries and studios. All of which helped a small fishing town in West Cornwall became the centre for modern art between the 1940s and 1960s.

Here, Gareth Powell, our Enriching the List Officer, dives into 6 places that help to tell the story of the famous St Ives modern art scene.

1. Harbour Wharf, St Ives

St Ives, Cornwall, February 2004
St Ives, Cornwall, February 2004. Photo © Historic England Archive | AA048339

Although not the most famous artist from the group, it was the work of Alfred Wallis that had a major influence on the scene.

An unemployed fisherman, following the death of his wife Wallis took up painting ‘for company’. He used ships paint, scraps of wood and cardboard as a canvas, and his ‘naïve’ style of work served as an inspiration for artist Ben Nicholson.

'The Blue Ship' by Alfred Wallis, painted ?c.1934
‘The Blue Ship’ by Alfred Wallis, painted ?c.1934, often on view at Tate St Ives. Image via Tate

A common thread in the work of Alfred Willis was the sea, the coast and all that we would associate with them: lighthouses, harbours and ships. It was what he knew.

2. Kettles Yard, Cambridge

Interior view of furniture and objects displayed in a living room setting in Kettle's Yard house
Interior view of furniture and objects displayed in a living room setting in Kettle’s Yard house. Photo © Historic England Archive | DP101304

Collector Jim Ede promoted the work of Alfred Wallis, but the artist sold few paintings and lived in poverty until his passing.

Ede’s collection of Wallis’ work is still on display in Kettles Yard in Cambridge.

3. Porthmeor Studios, St Ives

Porthmeor Studios, 10 St. Ives, Cornwall
Porthmeor Studios, 10 St. Ives, Cornwall. Photo © Historic England Archive | BB91/11303

In 1939, painter Ben Nicholson and sculptor Barbara Hepworth moved to St Ives and took over Studio 5 at Porthmeor.

The conditions in St Ives were perfect for painting. Geographically, being so far south west meant a good balance of daylight hours. This, combined with clean sea air, led to the perfect artist environment.

These two, together with potter Bernard Leach, were to form the nucleus of a modern art movement based in St Ives, which would achieve an international reputation within only a few years.

4. Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, St Ives

Detail view of the bronze sculpture 'Epidaurous' by Barbara Hepworth, with the sea behind
Detail view of the bronze sculpture ‘Epidaurous’ by Barbara Hepworth, with the sea behind. Photo © Historic England Archive | DP140976

Epidauros is found on display at the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden.

Barbara Hepworth was a leading figure in the international art scene. Her work, her legacy and her spirit are intertwined with St Ives.

Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, Barnoon Hill, St. Ives, Cornwall, August 2001
Barbara Hepworth Sculpture Garden, Barnoon Hill, St. Ives, Cornwall, August 2001. Photo © Historic England Archive | AA023512

During the outbreak of the war, she saw the small fishing village in Cornwall as a haven, when she and her family arrived, few would believe the impact she has had on everyone that visits and sees her work.

5. Former Mariners Church, St Ives

Former Mariners Church, St Ives
Former Mariners Church, St Ives. Photo courtesy Phil Hurd via Enriching the List

The Crypt Group were a collection of artists from the St Ives Society of Artists, that operated using a ‘modern’ abstract style that differed from the traditional approach used by the other members.

Some of the artists that made up the Crypt Group were Wilhemina Barns-Graham, Peter Lanyon and John Wells. The group was formed in the crypt of the deconsecrated Mariners Church and held exhibitions. 

6. Winged Figure, Oxford Street, London

'Winged Figure Sculpture', 1963, by Barbara Hepworth, on the south east corner of John Lewis, 278-306 Oxford Street
‘Winged Figure Sculpture’, 1963, by Barbara Hepworth, on the south east corner of John Lewis, 278-306 Oxford Street. Photo © Historic England Archive | AA005604

After 1945, the public started to see sculpture as pleasing to the eye and a valuable contribution to the built environment.

Barbara Hepworth’s Winged Figure was commissioned for the newly completed rebuilding of John Lewis’ flagship Oxford Street store. 

About the sculpture, Dame Barbara Hepworth said:

I think one of our universal dreams is to move in air and water without the resistance of our human legs, I wanted to evoke this sensation of freedom. If the Winged Figure in Oxford Street gives people a sense of being airborne in rain and sunlight and nightlight I will be very happy.

Her work proves that a slice of St Ives can be found even in the busiest of cities.

What have we missed? Let us know your favourite places associated with the St Ives art scene in the comments below.

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