'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
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.
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
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
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...
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.
'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.
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
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
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
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?
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
'The St Ives artists: a biography of time and place' will be
available in Spring 2008
Blow' is available via Amazon and all good booksellers
interview by Rupert White