St Ives School
History, Styles of Abstract Art Group Based in Cornwall.
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Harbour Window with Two Figures
(1950) Tate Collection, London.
By Patrick Heron.

St Ives School (c.1880-1993)

Contents

Summary
History of the St Ives School
Artists of the St Ives School
Sample Works

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Summary

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 (1894–1978), and the primitive naif painter Alfred Wallis (1855-1942).

 

History of the St Ives School (c.1880-1993)

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.

1939-1950

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.

1950-1975

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.

Commemorative Efforts

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.

Artists of the St Ives School

Ben Nicholson (1894-1982)
A student at the Slade School of Art, 1910-11, he married the artist Winifred Roberts in 1920. In 1931, Nicholson left his wife for the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, with whom he shared a studio. They were married in 1938 and divorced in 1951. From 1932 to 1939, Nicholson lived in London, though he still found time to visit the studios of Picasso, Braque, Arp, Brancusi and Mondrian. From 1939 to 1958 he lived and worked in St Ives, Cornwall, before moving to Switzerland. He eventually returned to London in 1974. He turned to concrete art in 1933, partly under the influence of Hepworth. The same year he joined Unit One, founded by Paul Nash, and in 1937 edited Circle: International Survey of Constructive Art. During the 1950s and 60s he received numerous awards and retrospectives, finally being seen - with Moore and Hepworth - as a major influence on British abstraction.

Barbara Hepworth (1903-75)
The greatest twentieth century female sculptor, Hepworth was a huge influence on the development of modern art in general and abstract sculpture in particular - notably biomorphic abstraction. A member of the Parisian Abstraction-Creation group, and the London Circle group, her seminal 1931 work Pierced Form introduced the 'hole' to Modern British sculpture (1930-70). Her most important works include the Dag Hammerskjold Memorial Single Form (1963, United Nations, New York), Pelagos (1946, Tate London), Hollow Form with White Interior (1963, Gimpel Fils, London), and Conversation with Magic Stones (1973, National Gallery of Scotland).

Patrick Heron (1920-1999)
One of the great British colourists, best known for his vivid abstract expressionism, like Nicholson he too studied at the Slade School of Art, 1937–9. He was art critic for the New Statesman and Nation 1947–50, and the London correspondent for Arts (New York) 1955–8. Every summer, from 1947 to 1955, he rented a cottage in St Ives. He turned to abstract art during the mid-1950s under the impact of American abstract painting, becoming identified with the French style of Lyrical Abstraction. It was at this time that he moved to Cornwall. He later claimed that the St Ives School had exerted a key influence on the 1960s Post-Painterly Abstraction movement in America.

Peter Lanyon (1918-1964)
The only significant member of the St Ives School to be born in the town, the English painter and sculptor Peter Lanyon had first hand experience of the powerful influence of Nicholson, Hepworth and Gabo, after they arrived in St Ives in 1939. After the war he was an active member of the St Ives modernists known as the Crypt group (after its exhibitions in the crypt of the Mariner's Chapel) and the Penwith Society of Arts. However, unlike many of his fellow members, he included more direct references to the local scenery, although he remained firmly within the abstract expressionist genre. In 1959 he started gliding. In later years he embraced a variety of architectural forms and mural designs. Also he created a series of painted reliefs, incorporating various junk materials.

Roger Hilton (1911-1975)
A graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art, Hilton turned from his early figurative painting to a form of abstraction during the early 1950s. By 1956 critics began comparing him with the Abstract Expressionists, while his naturalist rhythms and colours were interpreted as evidence of his association with the St Ives style. Returned to figurative works during the ill-health of his final years.

Sir Terry Frost (1915-2003)
Attended evening art classes during the early 1930s, but only began painting while a prisoner of war in Germany 1943. His early style of realism in the manner of the Euston Road Group was soon superceded by abstraction following his move to St Ives in 1946, where he lived initially in a caravan. Later he taught at Bath Academy, Corsham; at Leeds University 1954–6; at Leeds College of Art 1956–9; and at Reading University (1965-81). He lived in St Ives for much of the 1950s and 60s. His son Anthony Frost (b.1951) is also an abstract artist of the St Ives School.

Sample Works

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.

Ben Nicholson
- Cortivallo, Lugano (1921-3)
- White Relief (1935, Tate)
- 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) (1943-5, Tate)
- February 1956 (menhir) (1956, Guggenheim, New York)

Christopher Wood
- Boat in Harbour, Brittany (1929, Tate)
- A Fishing Boat in Dieppe Harbour (1929, Tate)
- Douarnenez, Brittany (1930, Tate)

Barbara Hepworth
- Sculpture with Colour (Oval Form) (1943, Private Collection)

Patrick Heron
- Harbour Window with Two Figures, St Ives (1950, Tate)
- Manganese in Deep Violet (1967, Estate of the Artist)
- Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian (1969, Tate)

Terry Frost
- Green, Black and White Movement (1951, Tate)
- Blue Moon (1952, Tate)
- Red and Blue (1959, New Walk Museum, Leicester)

Peter Lanyon
- Boats at Night (1947, Tate)
- Porthleven (1951, Tate)
- Nude 54 (1954, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester)

Victor Passmore
- Snowstorm (Spiral Motif in Black & White) (1950-1, Arts Council of GB)

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