Monday, December 6, 2010

The Art of Cornwall ~ BBC4 Thursday 2 December 2010

A personal journey from Cambridge to Cornwall underpinned the structure of last week’s 90-minute programme presented by Dr James Fox. Visiting Kettle’s Yard as an undergraduate, he became aware for the first time of the works of Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis. This experience engendered a fascination for the art of Cornwall.

Focussing on the significance of St Ives from the 1920s to the 1970s, Fox identified the outbreak of the Second World War as a pivotal moment in the history of the colony. In the hope of avoiding the dangers of bringing up their family in wartime London, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth left the capital in 1939, heading west. Others, such as Naum Gabo, fled to Cornwall from Europe, having experienced the horrors of the Russian revolution, followed by years of political instability.

The programme described how the influence of the elements permeated the work of the newcomers. Hepworth said of the landscape that she ‘felt through her feet its geological shape’, while Nicholson’s work revealed a rejection of rectilinear abstraction in favour of more rounded forms borrowed from nature. The convergence of talent within this small community fuelled an outpouring of creative energy which positioned St Ives alongside Paris or New York as a centre of modernism, but one which was uniquely British.

Patrick Heron and the Cornish-born Peter Lanyon (whose meteoric career was cut short by a fatal gliding accident in 1964) were presented as central figures in post-war St Ives. Something of a rebel, Lanyon was a founder member of the breakaway ‘Crypt Group’ formed in 1947. However, I felt that some attention could have been paid to a fellow member, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who came to St Ives from Scotland in 1940. Influenced by the works of Wallis and Gabo, by the 1950s she was exhibiting in London, Paris and the USA. Barns-Graham’s contribution to the British modernist movement, overlooked for some years, is now considered significant.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham
Construction in Space

Another omission in this narrative of the St Ives phenomenon is Margaret Mellis. In 1939 she and her husband, Adrian Stokes, were living in a large house in Carbis Bay. Were it not for her hospitality, it is unlikely that the Nicholsons would have found refuge in Cornwall in 1939. They and several other artists were guests of the Stokes’s for several months. Mellis was the youngest of the group. Encouraged by Nicholson and Gabo, she developed a talent for collages and reliefs. In the 1950s she moved to Suffolk, where she became well-known for her driftwood sculptures. She was honoured with a major exhibition in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Art shortly before her death in 2009. Several of her works are in the collection of the Tate.

Margaret Mellis
'F' - driftwood construction

The programme concluded that 1975 marked the end of an extraordinary era of international prominence for St Ives. Art historically it is a convenient, if simplistic, moment to close the chapter on Cornwall, coinciding as it does with the death of Barbara Hepworth, and also of the major post-war abstractionist, Roger Hilton.  In reality, history is always more complex, however.

After Hilton's death his wife Rose was able to resume her career (see my article An Historical Perspective) to great acclaim. Yet another woman artist working in Cornwall excluded from Fox's narrative was the colourist, Sandra Blow. It was in Italy in the 1940s that she first discovered abstraction.  A highly successful lecturing career at the Royal College of Art followed (where her students included David Hockney and R B Kitaj). This period was interspersed with visits to Cornwall, where her huge collage canvases, reminiscent of Matisse, were considered of such significance that they merited inclusion in Tate Millbank’s 1985 exhibition entitled ‘St Ives 1939-64’.  Sandra Blow moved to Cornwall permanently in the 1990s. She was further honoured with a retrospective, 'Space and Matter' at Tate St Ives in 2001-2, and died in 2006.

Sandra Blow RA
Iridescent Wave
Silkscreen print & collage

I think this programme would have benefited from a less masculine, one-sided approach – one which explored the role of some of the women artists working alongside their male counterparts, not only in the mid-twentieth century, but also today. It was noteworthy that Fox interviewed Naomi Frears in her Porthmeor net loft studio. But what a shame that he omitted to mention the line of continuity from the conversion of the lofts in the 1880s to working spaces, still used by artists today. The community of St Ives, building on the heritage of the past, is thriving and has much to offer our changing world.

See ‘Naomi Frears at Porthmeor

Copyright © 2010 Helen Hoyle


  1. I missed the programme but fascinated to read about these artists who were omitted. Thanks Helen for bringing some balance to the picture!

  2. Dear Helen
    You have picked on a number of omissions at this 'shocker' of a programme. Here is my collection:
    1.Winifred Nicholson's contribution to the inspiration of Ben and Kit was completely excised (Soviet style!). She was never mentioned once - truly amazing. "A Fisherman's Farewell" could have illustrated the artistic triumvirate.
    2.Alfred Wallis was 'The luckless ancient mariner' - In what way was he luckless? - Completely wrong adjective.
    3.James Fox is presenting 'Nothing less than an alternative history of British art' - Really? In what way was it alternative? Alternative to what in the 1920s - Bloomsbury, the lacuna of Nevinson/Wadsworth/Lewis, Stanley Spencer's chapel? Who knows?
    4.Kit produced 'quirky paintings of harbours' - the word quirky suggests peculiar or jerky. Again, the wrong adjective. His works are lyrical and haunting and painterly, but not quirky. And surely Kit was so much more than a painter of harbours?
    5.Fox mentions Kit's 'rich playboy lover', but in the next sentence just calls him 'he'. Why not call him Tony Gandarillas and mention his connection to Picasso through Eugenia Errázuriz.
    6.Fox: Wood met Alfred Wallis and scenes of metropolitan life were 'soon replaced by more vivid descriptions of life by the sea'. The before and after pictures were 'Paris Snow Scene' (1926) and 'Building the Boats Tréboul' (1930). The 1930 picture was not 'soon after' meeting Wallis, but one of the batch he painted two years later, shortly before his death. No mention whatsoever of Wood's Wallis-esque 'China Dogs in a St. Ives Window' of 1926.
    7.The selection of Wood's paintings for the 'Art of Cornwall' was clearly done for convenience rather than any realistic assessment of Wood's work - Of the six pictures featured, there were four from Kettle's Yard, one Private Collection, one ex Anthony Hepworth. Four paintings were set in France, one in London and just one in Cornwall ('Porthmeor Beach' - 1928). Where were all the pictures of St. Ives, Mousehole etc? The pictures were shown untitled and undated - the casual viewer was left with the impression that the 'Tréboul' picture was Cornwall, as not a mention of Wood being 'A Painter between Two Cornwalls'. A shoddy and disingenuous selection of works.
    8.The 'Falmouth' house party was in Feock some miles away.
    9.'Alfred Wallis's wife died in the mid 1920s' - this gave the impression of just a short interval between her death and Wallis's meeting with Nicholson and Wood. In fact there was in excess of six years between her death in March 1922 and the meeting in August 1928.
    10.Diaghilev asked Kit to design the ballet sets in February 1927 - Really? Wood was talking about it in 1925 and wrote that he was 'well out of it' in April 1926.
    11.Finally (on Paris), '[Kit's] choice of time and place was perfect'...'new radical "isms" were pouring out of cafes' ...'mechanistic, urban and angular'. Fox appears to have confused Paris Pre-World War I with the 'Rappel a l'ordre' in the 1920s - Picasso, Braque and Derain were not promulgating new 'isms', unless one counts 'Neo-Classicism'. A real 'schoolboy howler' by Fox.
    I have just seen that Fox is doing more programmes on British art - OW!
    Jan D. Cox, University of Leeds