During the 1940s and 50s, many of Britain’s leading artists congregated in St Ives.
What followed were sculptures, sceneries, and studios. All of this helped a small fishing town in West Cornwall become the hub for modern art between the 1940s and 1960s.
Here we dive into 6 places that help to tell the story of the famous St Ives modern art scene.
1. Harbour Wharf, St Ives
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. His ‘naïve’ style of work served as an inspiration for artist Ben Nicholson.
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
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
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 artistic 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
‘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.
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 who visits and sees her work.
5. Former Mariners Church, St Ives
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
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.Dame Barbara Hepworth
Her work proves that a slice of St Ives can be found even in the busiest of cities.
Written by Gareth Powell, Missing Pieces Project Officer at Historic England.
Add your pieces to the big picture
Every snapshot and story you can add to the National Heritage List for England is an important piece of the picture. The more pieces we have, the better we can work together to protect what makes these places special. Make a contribution to the Missing Pieces Project.