The Tate St Ives

Tate Gallery St Ives

The Tate St Ives occupies an impressive three-storey building on the site of a former gas works that backs directly into the cliff face overlooking Porthmeor beach. It is close to the graveyard in which Alfred Wallis is buried. Thought up by architects Evans and Shalev, who said that the building was reminiscent of a Ben Nicholson painting, the intention of the design was to show paintings and other works in the atmosphere in which they were created. Glass is used to great effect within the structure, allowing the famous St Ives light to penetrate as much as possible. One window was designed by Patrick Heron, a well-known local artist. It is made of coloured antique glass sheets which have been laminated onto panels of clear glass. It does not have any of the black leading normally used in stained-glass windows, making it one of the largest unleaded stained-glass windows in existence.

Tate St Ives opened in 1993, the second regional gallery in the Tate network, although they had been managing the nearby Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture garden since it opened in 1980. Rather than holding a permanent collection of work, the Tate St Ives presents special exhibitions which change three times a year. By contrast, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, housed in the artist’s former home and studio, holds a permanent collection of bronze, stone and wood sculptures, together with paintings, drawings and archive material, offering a remarkable insight into the world of one of St Ives’ and Britain’s most important artists.

View from Tate EntranceArtists have been coming to St Ives for centuries, but the phenomenal success of the Tate St Ives has helped to re-ignite the sense of a ‘St Ives school’. Since its inception, a number of other exciting projects have come to fruition, including the re-opening of the Leach Pottery and the renovation of Porthmeor Studios. Tate St Ives run an artist residency programme, which aims to develop the professional practice of artists who live and work in Cornwall.

Tate St Ives is open daily from March to October and Tuesday to Sunday from November to February. A rooftop restaurant, with spectacular views of the town and harbour, sells high-quality Cornish produce, while the gallery shop sells an excellent range of art books, gifts and cards, with an emphasis on local art, artists and landscape.

The St Ives Lifeboat

St Ives lifeboat
St Ives Shipwreck
St Ives Shipwreck

In 1838 a privately-owned pilot gig was used to rescue the schooner Rivals which got into difficulty off the coast of St Ives. The bravery of the men who went out in it can only be imagined. The Cornish pilot gig (now used for inshore racing), is a six-oared wooden rowing boat, about thirty feet long, with a beam of four feet ten inches and a top speed of about eight knots. Whilst the sea was as treacherous as ever these early rescuers had none of the equipment and features a modern lifeboat crew would regard as essential.

In 1840 St Ives got its first purpose-built lifeboat, Hope, although she was not much safer than the pilot gigs she replaced. Hope was a rowing boat with no radio, no cabin and no mechanism to prevent her capsizing in the huge seas that the coast around St Ives is regularly subject to. Countless craft have come and gone since Hope. Many wore out after too many years of service. Many more were wrecked, smashed against the rocks and sunk. Today’s lifeboat bears very little resemblance to its original predecessor, aside from the fact that it is still manned by a volunteer crew and managed by a committee of townsfolk. The Mersey class Princess Royal, brought into service in 1990, cost half a million pounds, has a range of one hundred and forty nautical miles and a maximum speed of seventeen knots.

The RNLI took over the running of the St Ives lifeboat in 1860, when the first lifeboat house was built. Inconveniently, it was built at Porthgwidden, from where it had to be towed through the streets before being launched off the Sloop. In 1867 the lifeboat house was rebuilt in Fore Street, and in 1911 it was rebuilt again, at the Quay (now a restaurant). The most recent house was constructed in 1994, across the road from the Quay. Although it has a new, purpose-built slipway, there is still the need for a special launching tractor to tow the lifeboat into deep water when the tide is out.

St Ives lifeboat
St Ives lifeboat

The first motorised lifeboat, the Caroline Parsons, was introduced to St Ives in 1933, only to be destroyed in a dramatic rescue in January 1938, when it went to the aid of a three thousand seven hundred tonne steamer that had headed into the exposed and dangerous Porthmeor beach by accident, mistaking it for the harbour. The Caroline Parsons managed to get all twenty three of the crew off the ship, before being washed up onto rocks to the north of the beach. All the lifeboat crew survived, although five of the rescued crew were lost, as was the lifeboat.

Less than a year later St Ives lost yet another lifeboat. This time, however, most of the crew did not survive. In January 1939 a large steamer ran into trouble off Cape Cornwall during a force ten gale. The St Ives boat was launched at three in the morning, crewed by eight men, including Coxswain Tommy Cockings. They made it as far as Clodgy Point before capsizing. The boat self-righted, as it was designed to do, but with a failed engine and only four of its crew. The boat drifted towards the island, where the surviving crew managed to drop anchor, but the sea was so rough that the rope broke and the lifeboat drifted out to sea again, where it capsized a second time, losing another man. Only one crew member, William Freeman, managed to survive the third capsizing. He scrambled onshore as the lifeboat was smashed against the rocks at Godrevy. Bronze medals were awarded to all eight crew members for their heroic actions. Over the years there have been two more Tommy Cockings on the crew of the St Ives lifeboat, the son and the grandson of the coxswain lost in 1939.

Every August on Lifeboat Day, St Ives lifeboat station opens its doors to the public for a fun-packed day of stalls, a barbecue and a demonstration with Search and Rescue helicopters from Culdrose.


Island Panorama

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360 degree panoramic view taken from in front of the tiny chapel of St Nicholas on the island in St Ives. The view takes in some of Porthmeor beach, the National Coastguard lookout, the beaches of Hayle across the bay and Porthminster beach across the harbour.

In case you can’t tell, The Island is not in fact an island at all – but it’s close!

To fully appreciate the panorama go full-screen by clicking the icon in the top right.

St Ives Harbour Beach Panorama

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360 degree panoramic view of St Ives harbour and beach. Great views along the beach and wharf road and over towards Smeaton’s pier with its two lighthouses.

Move the panorama around with your mouse. For best effect go full screen using the icon in the top right.

The St Ives School

Barbara Hepworth sculpture

The St Ives School of painting is generally associated with a group of artists who made the town and its environs their home in the years following the second world war. The group, led by Ben Nicholson and his then wife, Barbara Hepworth, included Peter Lanyon, John Wells, Roger Hilton, Bryan Winter, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Stass Paraskos, Paul Feiler, and Karle Weschke, together with the already-established Bernard Leach, who first put St Ives on the international art map when he set up the Leach pottery with Shoji Hamada in 1920.

Alfred Wallis GraveThe influence of the elements and the peculiar quality of light for which St Ives is famous permeated the work of these newcomers, just as it had inspired great artists such as Turner, Whistler, Walter Sickert, and local mariner and scrap metal merchant, Alfred Wallis, all of whom had visited, lived and worked in the town long before the St Ives school of painting was born. It wasn’t just artists and craftspeople who were drawn to the town, either. Poets and writers also settled there, including D.H.Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, whose novel To The Lighthouse was inspired by Summer visits to Godrevy.

In the late 1920s Ben Nicholson first visited St Ives with his good friend, Christopher Wood. Together they discovered and were inspired by the naïve and primitive style of local artist, Alfred Wallis, who had taken up painting in his old age to stave off loneliness following the death of his wife. Although Alfred Wallis’ paintings now sell for large sums of money, he was not accepted by the wider art community during his lifetime and died penniless.

Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth moved to St Ives in 1939, accompanied by their friend, Naum Gabo, a Russian avant-garde constructivist. Gabo, who had an interesting, scientific background, made flimsy sculptures totally different from Hepworth’s, which were heavily influenced by the local landscape. Hepworth continued to live and work in the area until her death in 1975. Nicholson’s work, meanwhile, began to reject rectilinear abstraction in favour of more rounded forms borrowed from nature.

Ben Nicholson paintingNicholson, Hepworth, Leach, Gabo and others thus established an outpost for the avante-garde art movement in West Cornwall. After the second world war an influx of talent converged within this small community to fuel an outpouring of creative energy that, for a while, positioned St Ives alongside Paris and New York as a centre of Modernism.

Of this new influx of artists, only one was born in the area. Peter Lanyon was an abstract artist who made direct reference to the local landscape in his work, building an imagery and association into his relief constructions and related paintings. In his painting ‘Porthleven’, visual and structural information about the Cornish fishing harbour was combined with figurative suggestion, while in subsequent work he often used techniques reminiscent of Alfred Wallis, evoking moorland, field and cliff through scruffy, churning or knifed paint handling. Peter Lanyon was a founding member of the ‘Crypt Group’ which he formed in 1947 with Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, whose work was exhibited in London, Paris and the USA and who is considered to have made a significant contribution to the British Modernist movement.

Roger Hilton paintingOther central figures included Roger Hilton, who derived his inspiration from the rhythms and colours of the natural world, Bryan Winter, a landscape painter who was born in London in 1915 and settled in Zennor in 1945, where he evolved a more dynamic, abstract style, Terry Frost, an abstract painter who started painting while a prisoner of war in Germany and moved to St Ives in 1946, and Patrick Heron, artsist and critic, who was born in Leeds, moved to St Ives in 1925 and finally settled in Zennor in 1956.

By the late 1960s the Penwith Society of Arts and Crafts was firmly established, although in the years that followed many of the original group gradually disappeared. The opening of the Tate St Ives in 1993, however, regenerated interest in the area, and many new artists are making St Ives their base today. Some of them, such as Naomi Frears, continue to work in the old net lofts above Porthmeor beach, which were converted into studios in the 1880s.

The Island

The Island, St Ives

Originally called ‘Pendinas’, which means ‘fortified headland’, the Island in St Ives is not really an island at all, but a small, grassy peninsula connected to the mainland by a narrow isthmus. Once a promontory fort with a protective ditch and rampart, this jutting piece of land between the harbour and Porthmeor beach provides a useful stopping-off point for migratory birds, making it one of the best autumn sea-watching sites in Europe.

Rare and unusual species that have been sighted include Grey Phalarope, Black Tern, Sabine’s Gull, Balaeric Shearwater, Arctic Skua, Great Skua and Yelkouan Skua. Resident birds include Manx Shearwater, Gannet, Razorbill, Guillemot and the occasional Puffin. The rocks are home to Rock Pipits, Wheatears live in the short grass and Buzzards and Kestrels can often be seen wheeling overhead.

A coastguard lookout provides spectacular views across St Ives Bay to Godrevy lighthouse. Dolphins and Porpoises can sometimes be seen playing in the bay. The Chapel of St Nicholas, one of many in Cornwall dedicated to seafarers, dates back to the fifteenth century. The present building was restored in 1911 and features floor tiles depicting fishing scenes created by the famous St Ives potter, Bernard Leach. The tiny chapel, which also commands excellent views across the bay, was used by Preventative Men in the days of smuggling.

In the old days a fire, called a pharos, would be lit at night on The Island to warn ships of danger and guide them safely to the harbour. In spite of this disaster was commonplace, and the remains of one wreck, the SS Alba, are still visible at low tide.

The Island can be easily accessed via an obvious footpath. There is an all-day car park nearby.