RW: Your new book 'The St Ives artists: a biography
of place and time' is due to be published in spring 2008. There's been a
lot written about St Ives art, particularly since the Tate arrived, and
every writer has a slightly different emphasis. My understanding is that
in this book you're interested in the wider cultural and political context
of St Ives art. Is that right? Can you describe what is different about
MB: First, the book works as
an unfolding narrative which brings together artists, places and events
with certain broad historical themes. I wanted to tell a serious
art-historical story but at the same time make it as readable as a novel.
I don't think anyone has approached ‘St Ives’ in quite this way before.
Secondly, you are right that the wider connections with what was going on
in Britain at the time, between the 1930s and the 1960s especially, are an
important part of the story. While other writers on St Ives art have
certainly explored these connections, they haven't generally used them in
a structural or thematic way.
This is the short answer. I also hope that there will be more than a
few moments in the book when even people who are very familiar with
particular St Ives artists and works of art will see them in a different
Sounds good. One constant feature of this century and the last is the pull
of St Ives and Cornwall to people who want to extract themselves from the
pressures and routine of urban and suburban living - from the rat-race if
you like - from 30s bohemians to 60s beatniks. Is this one of the main
MB Yes, although I look at it from the perspective not only of the
artistic ‘incomers’ but also of people living in St Ives - Alfred Wallis,
Urban Europeans have been trying to escape from the industrial rat race
for at least 200 years, and St Ives is just one of places they’ve headed
for - others being the Lake District, Brittany, the South of France, and
so on. What artists found in West Cornwall to a large extent depended on
what they were looking for. Patrick Heron, for example, saw the landscape
as a kind of Celtic Provence - full of intense Mediterranean colours, but
this time gorse rather than mimosa. On the other hand Bryan Wynter
(picture above: 'Foreshore with Gulls', 1949), who had been reading a lot
of Jung before he moved down in 1945, often seemed to think of the Penwith
Moors as a vast granite model of his own unconscious.
Each artist, each person creates his or her own landscape - and yet there
is this place, real and outside ourselves, which is also a powerful part
of the equation. I can’t say that I have solved this mystery, but I have
tried to show how it was that so many different artistic pathways ended up
converging on St Ives.
RW What are the other themes, and are there
stories or individuals who epitomise them?
MB My original idea was that in each chapter a particular artist and
historical theme would come to the fore. So I would look at Terry Frost in
the context of new opportunities and attitudes to the class system after
the Second World War, then the chapter featuring Patrick Heron, an early
champion of American Abstract Expressionism, would also cover the
influence of American culture in Britain during the later 1950s. In the
end, both the artists and the historical sequence refused to be structured
quite so neatly, but this is still the basis for the narrative and I feel
that on the whole it works. The alternative, to have all the artists
milling around in every chapter, would have made it impossible to grasp
the bigger picture.
the influence of American culture on the St Ives artists, was it limited
to American visual art or were other types of Americana important
MB In the late 1940s
it was a big deal for artists in St Ives if a civil servant from the Arts
Council called round for a studio visit. Ten years later, there were
visits by Clement Greenberg, Marc Rothko (Rothko's visit picture right)
and other movers and shakers from the New York art world. British artists
including Nicholson, Lanyon and Frost had exhibitions in New York. This
was the era of what Heron later called the ‘St Ives-New York axis’.
far as the rest of Britain was concerned, it coincided with the ‘Never
Had it So Good’ years under Macmillan, when people finally had money
to spend on new consumer goods inspired by the American lifestyle.
Hollywood, rock music, washing machines, televisions – it was an extraordinary
time, after a decade and a half of war and then austerity. It was
actually a desire to write about this era, to see where the art fitted
into the rest of it, that started me off on the book. So yes, all
sorts of ‘Americana’ find their way into the picture.
RW One of the things
that interests me is the importance of Eastern thinking emerging in the
States in the 50s and continuing with the Beats in the 60s. Via Bernard
Leach, however, it had a representative in St Ives too...
MB Bernard Leach
certainly features, although much earlier in the story. Imagine this tall,
serious ex-Slade student, who was now a cultural celebrity in Japan,
turning up in 1920 with his Japanese assistant and building an oriental
kiln in a damp field on the outskirts of St Ives, as far as possible from
proper sources of clay or firewood. As a passionate intellectual and
charismatic eccentric, who showed how the spiritual marriage of East and
West could take place in a teapot, Leach established a kind of bridgehead
in St Ives for others to follow.
One way or another,
St Ives became associated over the years with various sorts of idealistic
alternative lifestyle – artists on the moors, beatniks hanging around the
harbour. I find this whole phenomenon fascinating and had to try hard not
to let it distract me from the art.
thinking of the 1950s and 1960s was largely a reaction to consumerist
materialism, which of course was much more rampant in California than in
St Ives. The fact that seaside towns in general were favoured spots for
dropping out didn’t really have much to do with Buddhism. Many of Leach’s
‘Eastern’ ideas, on the other hand, began as British Arts & Crafts ideas
that he had taken to Japan, along with his love of William Blake, only to
find that they coincided with a back-to-our-roots spirit that was already
prevalent in certain cultural circles there.
Were you able to do any new research for the book? Did you uncover
anything that had, perhaps, been overlooked before?
MB I did a lot of research in the Tate Archive, going through
artist's letters and notes. Most of this material has already been
studied by art historians, but quite often I was struck by statements
or connections that I hadn’t seen anyone make before. I did also come
across new material. The Frost family very kindly allowed me to study
a notebook that Terry kept in the early 1950s in St Ives and Leeds,
full of drawings, lecture notes and memos which cast light on a crucial
phase of his career. And there are some wonderful illustrated letters
from the poet Sydney Graham to Roger Hilton that have never been archived
The St Ives Trust’s Archive Study Centre was an invaluable resource. One
of the things I discovered while going through their huge collection of
press cuttings is how incredibly chic St Ives was thought to be in the
early 1960s - a kind of Cornish Rive Gauche. Fashion photographers were
sent down from London to photograph the artists in their natural habitat
(picture left above: Cornel Lucas). It was all very much part of that moment around 1960 when
British art and fashion suddenly started to interact - quite different to
the high-minded Modernism we associate with the St Ives of Ben Nicholson
and Barbara Hepworth.
RW Hepworth doesn't look too approving in that
Yes, I guess by the sixties the idealism of early abstract art present
especially in Naum Gabo and Russian Constructivism (picture below right:
first Constructivist exhibition) had largely ebbed away and what was left
was 'a look' - and perhaps a lifestyle idea that could be easily packaged.
This was the time when eg Bridget Riley
had started making art that had much in common with Hepworth's except that
it was purely retinal: a visual effect without much in the way of ideals
behind it. But how idealistic or radical were the St Ives artists to begin
with? Was there ever a time when they were challenging and radical?
MB There is an important difference between being idealistic and being
radical or challenging. Gabo and other abstract artists of the 1930s were
extremely idealistic. They believed that art could lead the way towards a
better society. But at the same time they more or less accepted that very
few people would understand their work, or even be interested enough to
find it ‘challenging’, because they were way out ahead of the field –
avant-garde, in other words.
After the war, Peter Lanyon and other artists in St Ives inherited a lot
of this 1930s idealism. With the new Labour government, the Welfare State
and other social changes, however, came a general feeling that everyone –
doctors, teachers, artists – should be doing something useful to support
this better, fairer world. This was a problem for painters, especially.
You could radically explore the depths of your own psyche, or the forms of
the Cornish landscape, but how would this improve other people’s lives?
There was much talk about artists collaborating with architects in the
task of reconstruction, making spaces that people could actually live in.
For someone of Roger Hilton’s self-critical intelligence, the question
‘What is the point of painting?’ was a constant torment. He felt driven to
do it, yet he couldn’t help but see that it was a socially marginal
The early Modernist idea that artists had to be radical or challenging to
be worth looking at really bounced back during the 1960s with new
approaches that had a strong ethos of social critique. Before this, for a
decade or so after the war – the high-point of modern art in St Ives – it
was quite difficult to shock people anyway. They had been bombed,
bereaved, traumatised by combat, surrounded by urban wreckage – what sort
of shock could you add on top of all this?
RW So there was an element of social
constructivism rather than social critique? The other thing that had
happened by 1960 was the emergence of American art. You've mentioned Patrick
Heron. What do you make of his writing on the subject? He claimed, if I
understand correctly, that the St Ives artists had been doing abstract
expressionism for some years, but that American critics had refused to
recognise this. He likened it to cultural imperialism. Is this - or
Patrick Herons writings in general - something you explore in the book?
MB Yes, I make quite detailed reference to Heron’s writings at various
points. He wrote so well about painting, and he deliberately tried to give
critical shape to an idea of St Ives art that included himself and his
friends – Lanyon, Wynter, Frost and Hilton.
His thoughts about American Abstract Expressionism changed significantly
during the later 1950s. In early 1956 he was one of the only British
critics to applaud the big American show at the Tate – the first time many
artists in this country had seen work by Pollock, Kline, De Kooning and
Rothko. Within a couple of years, though, he was back-pedalling and
starting to talk about cultural imperialism. He realised that the power of
the New York art market to make reputations was completely overshadowing
his efforts to promote British painters. He wasn’t alone here – in
general, before people started to get excited about Pop art and it became
clear that Britain could never stem the tidal wave of American imports,
there was constant bellyaching by British intellectuals about American
culture’s brashness and supposed lack of depth.
RW Thinking about art and fashion and other
cultural cross-overs I am sometimes surprised there weren't more. One of
the best examples was Terry Frost's 'Walk a long the Quay' (1951 - left) being
used as a cover for one of the famous Blue Note Jazz albums (can't
remember which!). Can you think of
other more substantial 'cross-overs'? Do you think Cornwall's geographic
isolation was to blame for the fact there weren't more?
The obvious point here is that if Cornwall were more like Surrey or the
Cotswolds – a short commute from London – it wouldn’t have attracted the
kinds of artists that it did. I also think that many artists find that
their work is constantly being enlivened by crossovers. Wynter was
fascinated by natural history, Nicholson loved ball games, Frost read
poetry, Lanyon was addicted to fast driving – all these things fed into
their art. Whether the crossovers ended up being part of the way the art
hit the marketplace, like an album cover, was often down to chance – who
you happened to have lunch with, what the friends of your friends were
Of course, these encounters take place much more routinely in a city
– there aren’t many fashion houses or film studios in Cornwall. But
then I think of a contemporary artist like Andrew Lanyon, who uses
photography, film, assemblage, writing – and even paint – and I reflect
that being in Cornwall is no barrier to moving between different media.
It probably takes a high level of determination and independence of
mind to do really good work down here. There is much less money floating
around, and fewer people who crave the sheer breadth of cultural activity
you get in a city. And I’m very sceptical about that phrase that crops
up everywhere - ‘inspired by the Cornish landscape’ - like ‘Made with
Finally, I’m not sure that we can usefully compare the 1940s or even the
1970s to the situation today, when global communications can instantly
link creative thinkers in any part of the world. If an artist can’t think
creatively enough in Cornwall, there’s probably a good reason why he or
she needs to move on.
Ives artists: a biography of time and place' will be available in Spring
Blow' is available via Amazon and all good booksellers
interview by Rupert White