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.

Google Street View – Porthgwidden Beach!

So who, when and why did this bizarre message appear on Porthgwidden Beach, just in time for the Google Street View car to turn up and snap it?!


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Shark Sightings off St Ives

Great White Shark - St Ives
Great White Shark - St Ives
Great White Shark

Cornwall is home to a surprising variety of sharks. The most commonly sighted are Basking Sharks, which, despite their size and their classic Jaws-style dorsal fin, are completely harmless, feeding on plankton, a kind of algae that lives in sea water.

Not all Cornish sharks are harmless. The Blue Shark, Porbeagle, Thresher Shark and Mako (Maori for man-eating) Shark are all capable of inflicting injury on people, although as yet no shark attacks have ever been reported in the UK. This does not prevent sporadic media feeding-frenzies, in which St Ives often seems to be centre stage.

In 2007 the tabloids decided that a Great White Shark was hunting off the Cornish coast, following a prank by a local bouncer, who sent footage filmed off the coast of Cape Town to the local newspaper.

Media interest was further fuelled in 2009 when a twelve foot Thresher Shark was spotted by surfers and later washed up dead on the beach at Hayle.

Oceanic Whitetip Shark
Oceanic Whitetip Shark

The most recent uproar happened in 2011 when a sixty-year-old Mackerel fisherman claimed that a two-meter Oceanic Whitetip Shark ‘zig-zagged’ towards his boat and ‘circled it a few times’ before ‘slamming into it’. He reported the sighting to the harbourmaster at St Ives. Ten minutes later two other fishermen reported a similar experience, one of them claiming to be ‘100% certain’ that what he had seen was an Oceanic Whitetip.

Although the Shark Trust said that the chances of the animal actually being a Whitetip were extremely small – these sharks are usually found in deeper waters much further south – the media took up the story with relish, causing mass hysteria when a large Basking Shark was spotted in the harbour in the same week!

Lambeth Walk Beach

Lambeth Walk Beach

Lambeth Walk beach is a small (and oddly named!) beach situated between the harbour and Porthminster beach. It is barely a beach at all when the tide is in but opens up to join with the harbour beach at lower tides. The backdrop to the beach is the town Church of St Ia and to the northern end is the RNLI lifeboat station.

The beach got its name in the late 1930s when the hit song “The Lambeth Walk” became a dance craze around the World.

Lambeth Walk is a dog friendly beach with no restrictions throughout the year.

Clodgy Point Beach

Clodgy Point Cove

Clodgy Point beach is located just around the point (Man’s Head) from Porthmeor beach. It is a fairly rugged affair with a mix of boulders and rocks strewn across a sweeping bay that reaches over to Clodgy Point. It is possibly a little more sheltered than Porthmeor from the force of the sea but is barely accessible and only sandy at low tide. Access is from the coastpath towards the Clodgy Point end and is not recommended for all but the most agile.

On a low tide, with a medium sized swell and when Jupiter is aligned with Uranus there is a mythical surf break here. Foxholes as it is known is a rare point break that I have only ever seen working the once.

Clodgy Point is a dog friendly beach with pooches free to roam throughout the year on or off the lead.