Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sea Change ~ Art in St Ives 1914-1930

A review of the Penlee House Autumn 2010 Exhibition,
focussing on works by selected women artists

The approach to Penlee House is, to me, always accompanied by a lifting of the spirits. This elegant Victorian building, set well back from a busy road, offers a friendly welcome to the footsore visitor. The surrounding parkland is framed by tall trees enclosing a profusion of exotic plants reminiscent of the Abbey Gardens on the Isles of Scilly. The Art Gallery is home to the major collection of Newlyn School paintings (see ‘An Historical Perspective’).

On this occasion, Penlee’s own collection has given way to several dozen canvases representing Newlyn’s sister colony, St Ives. As one would expect from the exhibition title, a maritime theme predominates. Only two paintings in Gallery 1 are by women: Mary McCrossan’s The Round House, Sennen, and The Wharf, St Ives by Marcella Claudia Smith. On the outbreak of war, Marcella left Paris for the relative safety of St Ives, where she met up with her former tutor from America, Henry Snell. Her work was highly regarded at the time, gaining critical attention on the basis of its ‘masculine vigour’. She was also well known for her paintings of flowers, and as a milliner. In 1921 Marcella moved to London where she lived for some years with the painter Dorothea Sharp.

The exhibition provides an opportunity to see the work of Charles and Ruth Simpson, and it left me feeling unsurprised that Ruth Simpson’s work had gained less exposure than that of her husband Charles, when she had had to compete with his vast canvases. In Galleries 3 and 4, I was delighted to see three portraits by Ruth. The most successful, in my view, is Maroon and Gold.

But what stopped me in my tracks was a small painting in Gallery 3 entitled Light and Sound.  An allegorical work paying homage to the symbolist Emile Fabry, this is one of two paintings on show by Frances Lloyd.

Light and Sound 1920
Frances Lloyd
Courtesy of George Lloyd Music Library

Light and Sound was inspired by her adherence to theosophy, a belief system promoting the need for mankind to attain spirituality. Frances was the daughter of the American history painter, William Henry Powell. He was a keen opera-goer and encouraged Frances to train as an opera singer. She subsequently trained as an artist and met her husband, Walter Lloyd, while they were both studying in Paris in the 1880s. They had two sons, the elder of whom, Eugene, died in infancy. It is thought that this tragedy prompted Frances’ interest in mysticism. Walter, who was very much older than his wife, died of cholera in 1889, after only six years of marriage. The young widow moved to England with her surviving son, William, who became a musician and artist. It was not until much later in life that Frances returned to painting. She was invited to Cornwall to stay with William and his wife, who had recently settled in St Ives. The Belgian symbolist painter Louis Reckelbus was also in St Ives, as a refugee, and under his guidance she began to paint allegorical subjects, using the medium of tempera, which suited her style of painting.

Living Room, Bridge Cottage, Zennor c.1910, Frances Lloyd
Courtesy of George Lloyd Music Library

Frances Lloyd spent the war years in a cottage in Zennor, which is the subject of her second work, in Gallery 4. Living Room, Bridge Cottage, Zennor is a powerful composition, whose perspective draws the viewer into what feels like a cavernous interior, at whose heart is a window, an irresistible focal point beyond which the Cornish landscape beckons enticingly. On the brink of achieving her full artistic potential, Frances died, aged 66, in 1921.

Gallery 4 houses three more works by women artists: firstly an arresting 1920s fashion portrait, Catherine Richards in a Crysede Dress, by Frances Ewan, who had earlier enjoyed a career as an illustrator.

The second is a work ahead of its time in its formalist style: Loveday and Ann : Two Women with a Basket of Flowers by the acclaimed painter from New Zealand, Frances Hodgkins. A student and highly regarded teacher of art in Paris, she sought refuge in St Ives during the war years. Wartime conditions curtailed her teaching practice, so she turned her attention to producing modernist portraits. In a solo exhibition in London in 1920 her work was praised for its ‘virility’.

March Sunshine
Nell Cuneo
Private Collection

Finally a genre scene in oils by Nell Cuneo, entitled March Sunshine, in which a young woman is seated at a table before a vase of daffodils, lost in thought. After being widowed, Nell made her home in St Ives in the early 1920s, where she became involved in local theatre. Her reputation was soon eclipsed by that of her son Terence Cuneo, who became a war artist during the Second World War and undertook a number of public commissions over a long and distinguished career.

The choice of works for this exhibition, curated by David Tovey, ranges across a wide spectrum including ceramics. His selection breathes new life into the narrative of the development of the St Ives art colony, which absorbed a multitude of influences during a crucial period in the history of the twentieth century.

Copyright © 2010 Helen Hoyle

The exhibition continues until 20th November 2010.

With thanks to David Tovey and Bill Lloyd.

David Tovey’s book Sea Change : Fine and Decorative Art in St Ives 1914-1930 accompanies the exhibition and is available from Penlee House Gallery.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this - a great post as many of these are not widely known