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.
The 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.
Nicholson, 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.
Other 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.