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Dawn of a Colony


The writer and curator David Tovey describes the story of early St Ives art as told by two complementary Summer 2008 exhibitions





Picturing the West: Tate St Ives 14 June - 13th September


Dawn of a Colony: Picturing the West, St Ives 1811-1888 looks at artists working in St Ives both prior to the establishment of the colony in 1885 and in its formative years.  This is not only the first exhibition of early St Ives representational art that Tate St Ives has mounted, but it is also part of a joint project with Penlee House Gallery, Penzance, with that Gallery taking the story of St Ives art up to the First World War, in its exhibition Lyrical Light: St Ives 1889-1914, which opens on 14th June.  Both shows run until 13th September. 


We are all so used to the concept of the beauty of St Ives acting as a magnet for artists, that it is a bit of a shock to find that St Ives, for much of the nineteenth century, was a dirty, noisy, stinking fishing port, surrounded by mining detritus.  Indeed, mid-century guide books recommended visitors to avoid it.  Accordingly, in the first half of the century, few artists painted in the town.  Turner did a quick pencil sketch in 1811 which is in the exhibition, and it was clearly Turner’s depictions of the South-West, which were engraved and marketed by the Cooke brothers, that led the marine painter, Edward Cooke, son of the engraver, George Cooke, to make a tour of the south-west himself in 1848.  He stayed a week in St Ives in mid-October that year - the longest time that he spent in any one place - and the exhibition contains an engraving of his sketch of 11th October and a watercolour sketch dated 12th October, both done on the beach at Carrick Gladden Cove, now Carbis Bay.  These are fascinating, as they show huts on the beach, used for storing fishing gear, with upturned seine boats as roofs!  However, the exhibition also contains Cooke’s Royal Academy exhibit of 1853, The Pier and Bay of St Ives, Cornwall, which was sold to the Lord Mayor of London, and which is probably the finest pre-colony depiction of the town.


The completion of the rail link to Penzance in 1859 had a major impact on the number of artists visiting Cornwall and the newly elected Royal Academician, James Clarke Hook, spent nearly three months in St Ives in 1860.  Three of his RA exhibits of 1861 were St Ives scenes and the exhibition includes one of these and an etched version of another.  In addition to Hook, the exhibition also showcases some major Cornish works by John Brett and Henry Moore, the two leading marine artists of their day, who did much to publicise the attractions of the Cornish coast, and the juxtaposition of these works against the backdrop of the view from the Gallery makes a special combination.


The exhibition contains a number of topographical watercolours, which will be of interest, as some feature the old wooden pier, commenced in 1864 and never finished, the original stone pier, ending with the ‘pepperpot’ lighthouse, without the arches in it, and the mine engine house on Pednolva Point, from which it was hoped in 1860 to mine under the sea.  This operation folded fairly quickly, but the mine engine house was used as a quaint feature by artists, with some even romanticizing it into a castellated turret.  It later became one of the early studios, occupied by such artists as Eardley Blomefield, Moulton Foweraker and Millie Dow.


The collapse of the mining industry in the 1870s led to St Ives needing to re-invent itself as a ‘health resort’, but, despite at last getting a rail connection in 1877, it took some time for it to lose its tag as “a dirty fishing town”.  However, by the early 1880s, the number of artists visiting increased and, of course, James Whistler, and his two pupils, Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes, stayed during January 1884.  Some examples of their work are included in the exhibition.  However, the establishment of the colony in the winter of 1885 resulted from the visits of the French artist, Émile-Louis Vernier, who alerted various artists in the Breton art colony of Concarneau to the attractions of St Ives.  First to arrive and settle in the town were Henry Harewood Robinson and his Irish wife, Dorothy, and they were joined in 1886 by a party of Americans, led by Edward Simmons.  Also in St Ives in the summer of 1886 was Stanhope Forbes, and his new Canadian fiancée, Elizabeth Armstrong, and Forbes’ depiction of a house in Digey Square (now Bumbles Café), entitled Their Daily Bread, is included in the exhibition, along with his sketch of bathers and bathing tents on Porthminster beach.


The group of artists that painted together in St Ives in 1886 enjoyed their time so much that they returned in 1887, with further friends from Brittany, including Adrian Stokes, who had shared a studio in Concarneau with Edward Simmons, and his Austrian wife, Marianne.  Marianne invited her friend, Helene Schjerfbeck, a Finnish girl that she had met in Paris, to join them in St Ives, and, as Helene did not speak much English, they tended to work together, sharing the same models.  One of these was later described by Adrian Stokes as the best child model that his wife ever had, as, because she was so naughty at school, her teachers were delighted when she stayed away!  This girl featured in Schjerfbeck’s celebrated St Ives painting, The Convalescent, and a profile of her by Schjerfbeck is included in the exhibition, along with a painting of Chicken Amongst Corn Stooks, originally owned by Adrian Stokes, that has recently been bought by Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance.


Of all the early foreign artist visitors to St Ives, the one to achieve the greatest international acclaim was the Swede, Anders Zorn, who arrived in late October 1877.  He was already a highly regarded watercolourist and the show contains his large, famous watercolour of a fish sale on St Ives beach.  Simmons tells us that Zorn, who stayed at 12 The Terrace, had left this on a hedge to dry, but failed to notice that it had started raining.  Everyone thought the painting was ruined, but Zorn had merely remarked, “Now I can make a good picture”, and had turned the raindrops into footprints in the sand.  When the painting was later exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, the critics praised the naturalness of the footprints!  However, it was in St Ives that Zorn, with the aid of Edward Simmons, first learnt to paint in oils, and the exhibition also contains a lovely, freely painted oil sketch of the head of a fishwife, Old Anne, a model, who is reputed to have sat for Schjerfbeck as well.


1888, the year that brings to an end the Tate show, saw the fledgling art colony in St Ives achieve remarkable success.  Helene Schjerfbeck’s The Convalescent was bought by the Finnish Art Society, Anders Zorn’s Fisherman, St Ives won a Mention Honorable at the Paris Salon and was bought by the French Government and Adrian Stokes’ Upland and Sky (included in the exhibition) became the first painting by a St Ives resident to be bought for the nation by the Chantrey Trustees.  When, the following year, St Ives works by Adrian Stokes, Edward Simmons, Howard Russell Butler and Helene Schjerfbeck won medals at the Paris World Exposition, which, as it marked the centenary of the French Revolution, was the most prestigious exhibition of the decade, the art colony at St Ives had secured for itself a significant reputation on the international stage, which was only to grow over the next quarter century - the period covered by this summer’s shows.




Lyrical Light: Penlee House 14 June - 13th September

The second, and most significant, part of the Dawn of a Colony joint project between Tate St Ives and Penlee House Gallery, Penzance, entitled Lyrical Light; St Ives (1889-1914), opens at Penlee House on 14th June.  This highlights, in particular, how St Ives became a world-renowned centre for both the practice and teaching of landscape and marine painting during this period, as is demonstrated by the fact that a good many of the exhibits were shown, at the time, in international exhibitions in Paris, Brussels, Chicago, Pittsburgh, St Louis and even Buenos Aires.

The key initial figure was the future Royal Academician, Adrian Stokes (1854-1935), whose experiences in a variety of European art colonies, resulted in a concentration on the careful study of tones and values, as advocated by the Barbizon School landscape painters.  He followed up his Chantrey success of 1888, Upland and Sky (now on show at Tate St Ives), with The Harbour Bar (RA 1889), showing St Ives Bay at eventide from the Ferry House at Lelant, and The Setting Sun (New Gallery 1891), a depiction of a milkmaid at work on the cliffs near Zennor (picture left).  The latter was considered to be the landscape of the year and was bought by the famous Australian collector, George McCulloch.  Indeed, it was later considered to be one of the landscapes of the decade.  It has been restored specifically for the exhibition, having sat unloved for many years at the Harris Museum at Preston.

Stokes’ paintings drew down to St Ives a number of budding landscape students from the Herkomer Art School at Bushey, including Arnesby Brown, Arthur Meade, Algernon Talmage and Greville Morris.  Arnesby Brown, who, in his day, was considered to be “the greatest English landscape painter since Constable”, is represented in the exhibition by five works, including three magical depictions of the harbour at St Ives, as evening draws in, with the lights from the town playing across the gently lapping waters.  Brown, on his early visits to the town, stayed and painted at Tregethas Farm, near St Erth, which is still owned by the same family, the Hockings, that welcomed him then, and the show at Penlee House includes Brown’s 1896 Royal Academy exhibit, Homeward, depicting cattle returning to the farm at twilight.  Considered at the time his best work yet, it is very typical of the Barbizon-inspired work of the St Ives landscapists of this period, leading them to be called ‘The School of Moonrises’.

Algernon Talmage, who also later became a Royal Academician, was very influenced by Arnesby Brown at this juncture and is represented by his finest work of the period, The Ford, again showing cattle under moonlight.  Arthur Meade was, of course, a stalwart of the colony for fifty years and is represented by two magnificent canvases - Low Tide on the Bar, showing a rainbow reflected in the pools of water on the sands at Hayle, and his greatest success, The Merry Springtime, the first of his well-known bluebell-bedecked woodland scenes, which was described on Show Day in 1905 as “a dream of colour” and which won him an award at the Carnegie International Exhibition in Pittsburgh in 1907.

During this period, flat and gently curving lines in landscape were felt to evoke moods of restfulness and the Marazion Marshes were an enduring source of inspiration for all the St Ives landscapists, and marshland scenes, in which the pools of water reflect interesting lighting or cloud effects, by Louis Grier, John Noble Barlow and Adrian Stokes are also included in the exhibition.  Regular visitor, Alfred East, was also an important influence in the colony and he is represented by his major work, Hayle from Lelant (RA 1892), painted from Lelant Station and showing the mackerel boats laid up, out of season, in the Hayle Estuary.

Julius Olsson, who became known as Britain’s greatest seascape painter, produced the finest work of his career in St Ives, particularly in the years 1900-1914, and he is represented by four works, including Moonlit Shore, the painting that secured his reputation in this country when it was bought by the Chantrey Trustess in 1911, and Stormy Evening on the Cornish Coast (RA 1912), a large, impressive canvas combining two of Olsson’s favourite themes - storm and sunset.  Vividly coloured, these works, with their aura of romance, finally made pure seascapes acceptable in Britain.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is Setting Sun on the Cornish Coast, a nine feet depiction of the sun going down off Porthmeor Beach, by the American Sydney Laurence.  Laurence came to St Ives on honeymoon in 1889 and stayed for over a decade, before deserting his wife and family to go gold prospecting in Alaska, where he lost everything.  He later became Alaska’s most famous painter and American art historians have been searching for this painting for fifty years, as it was his most famous Cornish work, winning an Honourable Mention at the Paris Salon in 1894.  I found it last year in Southampton Art Gallery, under the simple title, Seascape.  Given its vast size, it is not a picture that can be overlooked, and yet no-one there had done any research into it or the artist - a typical example of the extraordinary neglect that many of these paintings have suffered.

Another painting that has been specifically restored for this exhibition is Moffat Lindner’s The Flowing Tide, again a depiction of sunset off Porthmeor and a work that won an award at Pittsburgh (1905).  However, perhaps the most successful marine artist in St Ives in the 1890s was Edmund Fuller, for he pandered to the Victorian love of dramatic incident.  A Last Hope, therefore, features a lifeboat off to save the crew of a doomed ship, but, in reality, this is a magnificent wave painting. 

St Ives also boasted its fair share of fine figure painters.  William Titcomb is represented by his well-known works, Old Sea Dogs, medalled in Chicago in 1893 and bought by Nottingham Castle Museum from the seminal exhibition of Cornish Art held there in 1894, and Primitive Methodists at Prayer, St Ives, his world-famous depiction of the fervour of the fishermen in the Fore Street Chapel, which won medals in Paris, Chicago, Brussels and at the Franco-British exhibition of 1908.  Marianne Stokes is represented by the much loved Polishing Pans and the similar Lantern Light (RA 1888), where she studies the play of light, not off copper pans, but through different types of glassware, whilst William Fortescue’s The Village Smithy depicts James Couch’s forge close to his home on Trelyon Downs. Finally, Penlee House will be showing, for the first time, their recent acquisition, William Eadie’s masterwork, Where there’s life, there’s hope (RA 1890).

The highlight of the watercolour section is John Bromley’s The Harbour, St Ives, a massive work painted from his home, Quay House, which was exhibited at the International Exhibition in Buenos Aires in 1910, and there are contributions to this section from artists such as Charles Mottram, Moulton Foweraker and Arthur White, whilst etchings by Alfred Hartley and Alfred East are also included.  It is hoped to find space to hang work by some of the many visiting foreign artists, who did so much to promote the reputation of the colony on the world stage, such as the Americans Elmer Schofield, Guy Carleton Wiggins, Frank Hutton Shill and George McCord, the Canadian Harry Britton, the New Zealander Herbert Babbage and the Australians Will Osborn, Will Ashton and Richard Hayley Lever, the latter being perhaps the most innovative artist working in St Ives in this period.

The exhibition, which runs until 13th September, should result in a complete re-evaluation of the place of early St Ives art, not only in the history of Cornish art, but also in national and international contexts. 



David Tovey’s new book St Ives Art pre-1890 - The Dawn of the Colony (price: £12-95) is available at the Tate St Ives bookshop, tel 01736 791110 .

David Tovey’s second new book Pioneers of St Ives Art at Home and Abroad (1889-1914) is available at the bookshop at Tate St Ives and The Harbour Bookshop in Tregenna Place and, of course, at Penlee House (Price £35).