Monday, September 01, 2008

St Ives... tomfoolery about scenery

I have just read Michael Bird’s book The St Ives Artists; A Biography of Place and Time (2008) and found it hard to put down. You can get a sense of why this is from an entertaining interview he conducted with Anthony Frost, Andrew Lanyon and Rose Hilton in Tate Magazine. There are some droll anecdotes – Peter Lanyon sneaking into the Leach pottery and making rude pots, Terry Frost urinating in Barbara Hepworth’s garden, mammoth drinking sessions with Roger Hilton and Sydney (W.S.) Graham. But as Michael Bird says, “if you want to understand the art, then the social side is crucial. It's not just a string of stories that are a sort of background to the art”. Discussions in pubs, studios and out in the landscape shaped the paintings - Andrew Lanyon (Peter’s son) points out: ‘artists have the desire to communicate. That's why you had these long sessions with Sydney and Roger. It was not just social, it was helping the work.’

Here are some observations from Michael Bird’s book on the different attitudes to landscape in the work of St Ives artists:
  • In 1928 Ben Nicolson and Christopher Wood made the trip to St Ives where they famously ‘discovered’ Alfred Wallis in his cottage by Porthmeor beach. Both artists made paintings called Porthmeor which resemble modernist stage sets. They stayed at Pill Creek, the subject for another painting by Nicholson, described by his wife Winifred as a ‘sleeping beauty landscape’. Michael Bird links these works to the contemporary verse of Auden ‘in which a distinctly modern sense of dislocation infuses a traditional landscape setting with hints of some encounter yet to be enacted.
  • The influx of contemporary artists to St Ives began ten years later with the arrival of Adrian Stokes, Naum Gabo, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. By 1950 the work of artists like Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter and Terry Frost had all developed into a kind of abstract landscape painting. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s beautiful Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) is seen by Bird as demonstrating ‘the fusion of the Constructivist spirit with a revivial of landscape art for which the town was becoming known.’
  • Peter Lanyon drew on Constructivism for his dynamic engagement with space and form in the landscape – exploring by foot, travelling at speed round the coast roads and eventually taking to the air in his glider. This physicality was reflected in the paintings, which fused images of the body with natural forms. Lanyon was also highly conscious of his Cornishness - an artist of place [Bird makes a connection between Lanyon and W.G. Hoskins; space vs. place in art was raised in an earlier posting here].
  • Bird describes a review of Lanyon’s paintings written by Patrick Heron: ‘what started out as Lanyon’s landscape – ‘cromlech-studded, rock-infested,’ ‘riddled by mines’, metamorphosed into Heron’s own, defined not by the much-hyphenated residue of history but by the ‘quality of light’ – more, in other words, by space than place.’ Heron was echoing the views of another artist-critic, Adrian Stokes who had bought the house Little Park Owles in Carbis Bay 1939 (built as the servant’s wing to the house of Frances Horne, benefactress of the Bernard Leach pottery, it was later owned by Peter Lanyon). Stokes, a lover of Italian art, had described the effect of Cornish light in Colour and Form (1937). Heron ‘poured into his vision of the Cornish landscape all his passion for Bonnard and Matisse.’ The garden Heron created at his Zennor home, Eagle’s Nest, was like a further expression of this, a living painting surrounded by grey crags, wild grass and sea.
  • Barbara Hepworth also created a garden (the photograph here is from my last visit in June). Bird writes that ‘apart from collecting Brancusi-shaped beach stones, Hepworth was not particularly fond of outdoor pursuits. She was never to be seen clambering around the cliffs, looking upside down at horizons or waving her arms around in a Force 8 gale in the Lanyon manner. Yet she was capable of rhapsodising on Cornwall’s wind-scoured beauty and chthonic, art-generating power...: “The sea, a flat diminishing plane, held within itself the capacity to radiate an infinity of blues, greens and even pinks of strange hues, the lighthouse and its strange rocky island was the eye, the Island of St Ives an arm, a hand, a face. The rock formation of the great bay had a withinness of form that led my imagination straight to the country of West Penwith behind me...”’
  • The idea of Cornwall also attracted writers - Bird describes the influx of poets to Zennor after the war: ‘with its Lawrentian associations and air of immemorial continuities, the landscape of Zennor was the kind of outsider country you’d expect a real poet to retreat to.’ Among these writers were W.S. Graham, David Lewis, David Wright, Michael Hamburger, John Fairfax, George Barker and the near-blind John Heath-Stubbs, whose ‘sight of the landscape around Zennor was limited (friends frequently had to retrieve him from the brambles and ditches into which he strode while out walking); unbeguiled by its dramatic contours or Mediterranean light, he was convinced that its real nature was anything but benign.’
  • ‘The real landscape overflows into the unconscious and the unconscious wells up peopling the real landscape with its own images,’ wrote Bryan Wynter in 1945, after moving to Zennor Carn. The result was a ‘fusion of robust, literal landscape and angst-sharpened dreamscape that was peculiarly his own.’ Terry Frost’s abstract paintings also drew on emotion and memory. I’ve already described here the genesis of his painting Moon Quay (and since writing about it have experienced, like him, an early morning walk along St Ives quay to quieten a crying baby).
  • Finally, there’s Roger Hilton who first rented a studio in St Ives in 1956 and joined in those creative discussions with his fellow artists, listening to Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon ‘extol the mysterious creative power the Cornish landscape. At the same time, as his first wife Ruth, recalled, Hilton perceived that it was ‘dangerous provincial nonsense. “It’s all here”, I remember him saying once, tapping his head. “All this tomfoolery about scenery.”’


adieudusk said...

Hi, it's great to find your blog, I like it. I got to know the St Ives artists through W.S.Graham. Have you seen any of his painting? I remember Roger said the poet could draw quite well.

Plinius said...

Thanks. No I don't recall seeing any paintings, although the book discussed here includes one of his cartoons. W.S. Graham's poems about the artists are very evocative.

Anonymous said...

There are a couple of letters from W.S. Graham to Ben Nicholson in the Tate Archive. Can't remember if they included any drawings though.

adieudusk said...

Thanks both of you. I like a lot of W.S. Graham's poems. In the April, I have translated some of his poems into Chinese for a magazine. It seems that Chinese readers like more of his later works, especially those written to his artists friends, his father and his wife. Poems like Seven Letters evoked some dispute on his language. Roger Hilton's drawing is great, I also like his wife Rose Hilton's painting.