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Ebb and flow of reputations in Cornwall  

25 November 2016

Susanna Avery-Quash on the St Ives artists

The St Ives Artists: A biography of place and time
Michael Bird
Lund Humphries £30
Church Times Bookshop £27



FOR anyone interested in learning more about Britain’s first significant contribution to the modern-art movement in the 20th century, and the personalities behind it, includ­ing Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hep­worth, Patrick Heron, and Peter Lanyon, this book is a “must”. This second edition, retaining Michael Bird’s fine-tuned and insightful prose, is enriched with a host of colour illustrations, crucial to enabling those less familiar with the topic to get to grips with key works of art under review.

The author’s focus is on the most significant artists who lived and worked at St Ives between the 1940s and ’70s, even though, as he points out, they were never a united artistic movement; indeed, anecdotes and excerpts from correspondence reveal much personal rivalry, linked to a constant jockeying for power, and attempts to undermine Nichol­son and Hepworth.

Instead of seeking to answer the question what unites the resulting works of art (in fact, it would seem that all that links them is location — certainly the diversity of their subject-matter, technique, inspira­tion, and aspiration belies any sense of cohesion), the author contextual­ises them.

He sets the works of art within a wider story of post-war Britain, when pop music, cinema, and consumerism were making their mark culturally and socially, when the Cold war dominated politics, and when American abstract expres­sion­ism thrust itself on the art world.

The 12 chapters map, like the Cornish tide, the ebb and flow of artists’ critical fortunes, from the struggles, described in Chapter One, of the penniless Terry Frost’s arrival at St Ives in 1946, to the last chap­ter’s frank account of Roger Hilton’s descent into alcoholism and early death.

Arguably, the leitmotif is the battles that the artists faced, whether from the ongoing anti­pathy to modern art in Britain; the near-fatal criticism from within the art world — not least from the Marxist champion of realism John Berger; and the lack of support the female artists received from all quarters.

Despite these conflicts, Bird’s authoritative narrative is clear that creativity won out. Indeed, it is no mean achievement that St Ives remains the only town in Britain to give its name to an international art movement.


Dr Susanna Avery-Quash is Senior Research Curator in the History of Collecting at the National Gallery, London.

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