‘It’s a teeny weeny fishing port, it’s quite extraordinary’: St Ives and the second generation of British abstract artists
In the 1940s and 1950s a new wave of artists were drawn to the Cornish fishing town in the wake of the Modernists who had moved there before the outbreak of the Second World War. They drank, they argued and they communed with nature, convinced that ‘colour is the only direction for painting’
The problem with St Ives, noted the painter Wilhelmina Barns-Graham (1912-2004), was that it was ‘very difficult to draw without having a hint of Ben Nicholson about it’.
Barns-Graham was one of a second wave of painters who gravitated to the Cornish fishing town from about 1940 onwards, lured by the utopian Modernists who had colonised it in the years before the war.
Taking inspiration from the Cornish landscape, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo experimented with a rigorous mix of Constructivism and Primitivism, developing a new spatial abstract language in the process.
For those that followed — later known as the second or middle generation because they came between those early Modernists and Pop art — the challenge was to amplify that abstraction without appearing derivative.
The results were remarkable: the painters attacked the subject head on, creating an art that was bold and visceral and expressed the drama of the Cornish coastline in vibrant colour.
Many of the second-generation artists had fought in the Second World War, and they brought some of that trauma to their work.
Sven Berlin (1911-1999) had been in the D-Day landings; Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) had served in the RAF; Terry Frost (1915-2003), Adrian Heath (1920-1992), Karl Weschke (1925-2005) and Roger Hilton (1911-1975) had been prisoners of war; and the German-born Paul Feiler (1918-2013) had been interned as an enemy alien.
Having lived through the horrors and been spared, they harnessed a terrific desire to get on with life. They pursued their calling with an undeviating single-mindedness.
As the group’s unofficial poet W.S. Graham (1918-1986) wrote, ‘The poet or painter steers his life to maim / Himself somehow for the job.’
While they were sympathetic to the rhythms and structure of the landscape, they also wanted to convey what Berlin described as ‘the redemptive and spiritual power of art and nature’. And they found unique ways to do this.
Patrick Heron (1920-1999) wandered the moors, soaking up the landscape ‘through the soles of his feet’, while Lanyon made paintings based on his experiences as a glider pilot. Bryan Wynter (1915-1975) and Hilton experimented with mescaline, and Barns-Graham went to study glaciers in Switzerland, where she witnessed an avalanche.
By the mid-1950s it was clear to the rest of the art world that something significant was happening in St Ives. As Heron observed, ‘There is no other place built into the history of 20th-century art worldwide that is not itself a capital city or a great metropolis but St Ives, and it’s a teeny weeny fishing port, it’s quite extraordinary.’
In 1961 Ida Kar was dispatched to Cornwall to photograph these promising young artists for a four-page feature in Tatler.
The opening paragraph ran, ‘It’s a long way from the Left Bank, and the local inns don’t keep bistro hours, but so many artists have moved their homes and studios to the neighbourhood that this Cornish fishing town can fairly be called “Le Quartier St Ives”.’
The sense of an artistic fellowship was palpable. Societies were formed, declarations made, and Heron, who was also a writer, took every opportunity to review shows by his contemporaries. He staunchly defended their abstract values, which were, as fellow artist William Scott observed, ‘much ridiculed by our critics’.
Nights were spent in heated discussions about art. The conversations were strident and emotional, and there was a benign ferocity to the way the artists studied each other’s work. Peter Lanyon’s son recalled that Roger Hilton and W.S. Graham worked ‘as a team against any kind of preciousness’.
They also drank heavily, made mischief and had blazing rows. Lanyon once chased Hilton down the road in his car. Yet the social side was important — those arguments fed into the work.
Exhibitions were staged in Paris and New York, and the American art critic Clement Greenberg came to St Ives to discuss the group’s belief that ‘colour is the only direction for painting’.
Heron considered British artists, primarily those based in St Ives, to be the successors of Parisian Modernism, arguing that the Abstract Expressionists had discovered Colour Field painting through them. Mark Rothko had visited the town as a guest of Paul Feiler in 1958.
Scott was more equivocal, suggesting the two schools ran in parallel, after being impressed by the sheer scale of American abstraction. ‘I realised that the Americans had made a major discovery… putting abstract painting on its right scale. It was not the originality of the work… but I was overwhelmed by its audacity.’
Whatever the arguments on either side, in the heady rush to the 1960s, the weight of popular narrative was against the St Ives artists, and it was the Americans who achieved cultural supremacy.
In 1964 Peter Lanyon was killed in a gliding accident, and this tragic event seemed to mark the end of the post-war heyday for British abstraction. The St Ives artists continued their radical explorations of space, form and colour, but in the face of relative indifference.
It was not until the early 1990s that their work began to have a resurgence, by which time Bryan Wynter, William Scott and Roger Hilton were no longer alive.
Curators began arguing passionately and persuasively for the rehabilitation of the St Ives artists. Retrospectives were held and catalogues raisonnés published.
Tate St Ives opened in the summer of 1993 as a permanent tribute to this extraordinary phase of modern British art. A stained-glass window designed by Heron fills the entrance hall with coloured light, while a vibrant abstract banner by Frost is hung in the stairwell.
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The museum is situated just along the road from the Porthmeor studios where many of the artists worked. Looking out of the gallery’s great window, across the rocks and the sea to the far horizon, it is possible to see how this extraordinary landscape opened up the most exciting possibilities for a group of pioneering artists who risked it all for abstract art.