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Michael Bird on 'The St Ives artists: a biography of place and time'

Michael Bird lives in Penwith, has written for the Tate magazine and is author of 'Sandra Blow' the definitive monograph on the late painter.



'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, but in this book you're interested in the wider cultural context of St Ives art. Is that right?

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 light.


One constant feature of this century and the last is the pull of Cornwall to people who want to extricate themselves from the routine of urban and suburban living - from the rat-race if you like. Is this one of the themes?

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, for one.

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.  


What are the other themes, and are there stories or individuals who epitomise them?

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 1950's. 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.


Regarding the influence of American culture on the St Ives artists, was it limited to visual art or were other types of Americana important too?

In the late 1940's 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'.

As 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.


One of the things that interests me is the importance of Eastern thinking emerging in the States in the 50's and continuing with the Beats in the 60's. Via Bernard Leach, however, it had a representative in St Ives too...

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 lifestyles; 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.

The 'Eastern' thinking of the 1950's and 1960's 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?

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 1950's 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 or published.

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 1960's - 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.

Hepworth doesn't look too approving in that picture! 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?

There is an important difference between being idealistic and being radical or challenging. Gabo and other abstract artists of the 1930's 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 1930's 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 activity.

The early Modernist idea that artists had to be radical or challenging to be worth looking at really bounced back during the 1960's 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?

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?

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.

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 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 into.

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 Real Lemons'!

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.


'The St Ives artists: a biography of time and place' will be available in Spring 2008

'Sandra Blow' is available via Amazon and all good booksellers



interview by Rupert White