St Ives School (c.1880-1993)
OF VISUAL ART
ENGLISH LANDSCAPE ART
In fine art, the term "St Ives School" refers to a loose-knit group of artists (mainly exponents of abstract art) who flourished in the Cornish seaside town of St Ives, in England, from 1939 to the mid-1960s. Like the other major artist colony in Cornwall - the Newlyn School - founded during the 1880s by Stanhope Forbes, the town of St Ives had the perfect climate and light for plein-air painting. The first major artists to settle in the town, were the abstract sculptor/painter Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and his wife the sculptress Barbara Hepworth (1903-75), who both arrived in 1939, followed shortly after by the renowned Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo (1890-1977). These three formed a sort of outpost of avant-garde art in St Ives, which was significantly boosted, from about 1950, by the appearance of a group of younger artists, including Peter Lanyon (1918-1964), Bryan Wynter (1915-1975), Terry Frost (1915-2003), and Patrick Heron (1920-1999), as well as the attendance of the influential modernist art critic Herbert Read (1893-1968). During the 1950s and 1960s, St Ives became famous for its abstract sculpture (exemplified by Hepworth), and its abstract paintings, which had a major impact on the development of modern art in Britain. In 1976, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden was opened in the town, followed in 1993 by the Tate St Ives, which showcases the Tate's collection of St Ives School art. Other members of the St Ives school included: Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), John Wells (1907-2000), Roger Hilton (1911-75), William Scott (1913-89), Christopher Wood (1901-1930), Paul Feiler, Christopher Wood, Karl Weschke, the famous ceramicists Bernard Leach (1887-1979) and Shoji Hamada (18941978), and the primitive naif painter Alfred Wallis (1855-1942).
Pre-World War I
The picturesque fishing town of St Ives received its first big influx of visitors in the late 1870s, following the completion of the rail-link connecting the town to the main Paddington-Penzance railway. Among the first artists to make the trip were the Post-Impressionists Walter Sickert (1860-1942) and Whistler (1834-1903), who spent a number of weeks landscape painting in St Ives during the winter of 1883-84, while the Finnish open-air painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862-1946) and the Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860-1920) spent the winter there in 1887-88. Early settlers included Adrian Stokes (1854-1935), Julius Olsson (1864-1942) and Louis Reginald James Munroe Grier (1864-1920), who in 1890 were instrumental in establishing the St Ives Arts Club. By the mid-1890s St Ives was a popular destination for landscape and marine artists exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy in London, the Paris Salon and other European venues. In fact, paintings were often showcased in the town before being shown at the Royal Academy.
Between the Wars
By the end of the First World War most of the initial generation of St Ives' painters had died, retired or moved away. Even so, the town continued to attract a steady stream of artists. In 1920, the famous British ceramicist Bernard Leach founded the Leach Pottery Studio in the town, with the Japanese potter Shoji Hamada. (It is still open today.) In 1927, the St Ives Society of Artists was formed and a new gallery venue was established in one of the large studios on Porthmeor Beach. In 1928, the painters Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood visited St Ives where they were greatly impressed by the Outsider Art of the naive artist Alfred Wallis, who had only started painting 3 years previously, to ease his loneliness after the death of his wife. In 1938, the London painter and teacher, Leonard Fuller (1891-1973) founded the St Ives School of Art in another of the Porthmeor Studios.
In 1939, Barbara Hepworth - one of the leading abstract sculptors in Britain - and her husband Ben Nicholson - one of Britain's major abstract painters - settled in St Ives in order to escape the anticipated bombing of London. Not long afterwards they were joined by Naum Gabo, the famous Russian exponent of Constructivism and kinetic art. Other exponents of non-objective art arrived during and immediately after the war, few of whom had anything in common with other resident traditional landscape painters. The modernists were encouraged to join the St Ives Society of Artists, but in 1949, a splinter group of 20 abstract artists broke away to establish the Penwith Society of Arts with its own large gallery in the centre of St Ives. Leading members of this breakaway group included Nicholson, Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, John Wells, Terry Frost, and Patrick Heron. The English painter Victor Pasmore (1908-98) visited St Ives in 1950, and shortly after broke decisively with figurative art, abandoning his poetic Thames scenes and figure-studies for pure abstraction, which he pursued with idealistic vigour as Head of Painting at Newcastle University.
During the 1950s, with London still endeavouring to recover from the war, the abstract painters and sculptors of the St Ives School formed the nucleus of avant-garde art in Britain. It was the St Ives group which established links with artists from the emerging New York school of abstract expressionism, and which provided most of the abstract paintings promoted world-wide during the 1950s and 60s through the auspices of the British Council and the Arts Council. Not until the rise of Pop-Art, during the late 1960s did the St Ives movement start to decline - a process hastened by the deaths in 1975 of Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Wynter and Roger Hilton.
In 1976, the studio and garden of the late Dame Barbara Hepworth was turned into a museum and opened to the public. Four years later, it was officially taken over by the Tate Gallery. A more ambitious plan to commemorate the work of the St Ives art colony, which involved the setting up of a permanent exhibition next to the Penwith Gallery, collapsed due to a lack of funds and was closed down in 1980. However, a similar plan was revived in 1993, when the Tate Museum opened the Tate St Ives, in order to exhibit its collection of St Ives School art.
Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
Barbara Hepworth (1903-75)
Patrick Heron (1920-1999)
Peter Lanyon (1918-1964)
Roger Hilton (1911-1975)
Sir Terry Frost (1915-2003)
Works by St Ives artists hang in several of the best art museums in Britain, notably the Tate Collection in St Ives. Here is a short selection.
For more about English abstract painting, sculpture and ceramics, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY