by Alan Tait
20 – 24 May 2018
The Richmonds coach took nearly 30 of us to Paddington and the train to Penzance, where we arrived mid-afternoon. We stayed in Chapel House and the Artist Residence, both in the finest street in Penzance, according to Pevsner’s Cornwall. We began with a drinks reception and briefing from Deborah Owen and Rolfe Kentish, our indefatigable group leaders. Dinner in the Turk’s Head and a nearby Thai restaurant began a lot of good conversations which lasted throughout the trip.
A stroll down the sea wall in gentle sunshine brought us to the Newlyn Art Gallery, around 100 years old, with a very light modern extension on the seaward side. The director James Green gave us a helpful orientation to the Gallery and an account of its origins. The current exhibition is titled Hummadruz, the mysterious humming noise said to be heard at dawn and dusk in Cornwall, and was full of mystical artefacts and accounts of Celtic happenings. We also saw some very attractive pots by Jack Doherty, with green and blue patina developed through the application of soda. From Newlyn we were bussed to the wonderful Leach Pottery in St Ives. This is still a working pottery studio, making Leach Standard ware, as well as a museum and education space. An instructive video of Bernard Leach throwing a pot talked us through the process of decoration and glazing. The ceramics on display included ancient oriental items that had so inspired Leach, who spent the first part of his childhood in Hong Kong, as well as beautiful work by him and his major pupils.
Lunch in the delightful Tinners’ Arms in Zennor was followed by a visit to Patrick Heron’s house at Eagles Nest nearby. Here we were met by his daughters Katharine and Susanna, and were told stories about their childhood in the house, and given personal tours of the garden. There is in fact a collection of different gardens, set on a hillside with stunning views down to the sea, with azaleas, camellias, large and small trees and huge boulders. Then back to Zennor Church, for a talk from Cornish historian Jo Mattingly about its architectural character, and a walk in the churchyard to see Heron’s tombstone. Then on to Anchor Studio in Newlyn, where we were hosted by the resident artist Virginia Bounds. This studio was one of those where the Newlyn Art School was directed by Stanhope and Elizabeth Forbes from 1882 onward, and where Jim Ede himself was recorded back in 1912–14 as having been a student. Ben Nicholson was a frequent visitor when the studio was used by John Wells.
That concluded the formal business of the day, which was followed by Cornish wine, including a prosecco style one, and the group canapé dinner excellently catered by Susan Stuart at Chapel House.
We walked through Penzance town under Rolfe’s expert guidance, discovering the elegant Regency Victoria Square amongst many beautiful places, to Penlee House Gallery and Museum for an exhibition of the Newlyn School. We were given a lively introduction by outreach officer Zoe Burkett. Four rooms were dedicated to the School’s first and second waves, led by Stanhope Forbes, painting local people en plein air, especially fishing people at work.
In the afternoon we visited the Jubilee Pool, a stunning open air sea lido on the front. Susan Stuart, a trustee of the Friends of Jubilee Pool, gave an endearing introduction. Designed and built in 1935 in Art Deco style by Penzance’s borough engineer, the pool has been through many trials and tribulations of financial sustainability, before recently achieving something closer to a real community-led plan for the future under the Friends. A Cornish cream tea sealed the support of many (first jam and then cream on the scone, local style).
On Wednesday we set off in the bright sunshine on the early train to visit Tate St Ives, taking in beforehand Barbara Hepworth’s studio and its small garden full of sculpture. The Patrick Heron exhibition at the Tate’s main gallery was educative in every sense, and it was wonderful to bring to it memories of his garden we had visited two days earlier. Sara Matson, the exhibitions curator, talked to us about some of the rewards and challenges in organising the show around themes rather than on a chronological basis. The main collection also offered great insights into some of the twentieth century St Ives artists, and their engagement with abstraction.
Later in the afternoon, after ice creams, we visited the Porthmeor Studios and Cellars, an early and long lasting part of the St Ives artists’ story, dating back to around 1880 when the first artists arrived. We heard first from Chris Hibbert, from the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust, about the ambitious restoration programme for the building (architects Long and Kentish) which still serves both fishermen and artists. We heard next from Michael Bird, author of the book The St Ives Artists. He claimed St Ives was rivalled only by London in the sustained inspiration it has given to such a wide range of artists, from the Victorian period through the twentieth century modernists to the artists there today. We visited a number of studios with working artists, who were kind enough to give up time to receive us, and who were occupying studios inherited from a range of illustrious predecessors, including Frances Bacon, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost. It was fascinating to meet artists at work, to see such different works in very varied states of completion, and the studios themselves managed in different ways. We finished with drinks in the School to round off a day as interesting as it was by the end exhausting.
Our last morning in Cornwall was spent at the Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, round the bay from Penzance. A recent addition to Cornwall’s cultural scene, Tremenheere is made up of 22 acres of subtropical garden in an inland valley, with contemporary sculpture by a range of artists including James Turrell, David Nash and Richard Long. The challenging gradients, at least for Cambridge people, took nothing away from the sculptures/installations and the stunning flora. We finished with lunch in the café, and then many thanks to our group leaders Deborah and Rolfe, proposed by Jeremy Barnett, treasurer of the Friends. Not only did all their meticulous planning and organisation work wonderfully well, they also quietly adjusted the schedule in so many small ways every day to take advantage of new possibilities. They used all their contacts to gain us privileged access to many people and places. We came home with a real understanding of how the Newlyn and St Ives schools has worked over some 150 years. And the sun shone almost all day every day to show us how the Cornish light had so much to do with it.