This Summer I treated myself to a quick trip to St Ives in Cornwall on the very tip of South West England.
About St Ives
St Ives has been there since at least the 5th Century and was named after an Irish saint. For the most part it has plied its trade through fishing though has also been a bit of a hotspot for artists ever since Turner took a trip down there in 1811.
Since Turner it has grown into one of the great artistic centres of the world with its high-water mark in early part of the 20th Century.
James Fox (University of Cambridge’s History of Art Department) said ‘St Ives’ artists went on to produce some of the most exhilarating art of the Twentieth Century…for a few dazzling years this place was as famous as Paris, as exciting as New York and infinitely more progressive than London.’
On that creative recommendation this is more of a pilgrimage than a simple painting trip. I would not however be stoically walking to this particular shrine. I packed the car and headed down the A30.
The main part of the town is situated on a tiny thumb shaped peninsular that pokes out into the Irish Sea. It boasts four honey yellow beaches that seem to hurl the light back onto the faces of the whitewashed dwellings giving an almost Mediterranean feel. It has been called the brightest town in England and I can see what they mean. It is all quite lovely.
Because of this unique geography the houses are tightly packed into winding and often precipitous streets and lanes. When you get into the scrum of the streets you realise that almost every house is either selling a bed for the night or a painting of where you can get a bed for the night, and in some places they were selling both. I am not criticising tourism in anyway as all this commerce seems to work really well and St Ives has maintained a real community feel which sadly has been rinsed out of other Cornish villages.
The Bait Diggers
First off I set to drawing and painting on the beach at low tide. I have always had paranoia of being surrounded by an incoming tide and as I worked I periodically have a jumpy panic and jolt my head round at the water behind me “Is it coming in or out? Is it coming in or out?” I muttered.
In the end I decided to watch the locals and just do what they did. This gave me my first subject which was bait diggers and their dog in front of the lighthouse on the end of Smeaton’s Pier.
Once done I worked up the basis of a watercolour featuring the pier too. I was just pulling the bones of the composition together and looked up. The diggers were gone, the tide had changed! I grimaced to my right and the evil sea was sliding keenly in my direction, a genuine terror hit me and with involuntary whimpers I belted for the high tide line, shamefully overtaking the bemused bait diggers on the way. I even outran their bloody dog.
On the final piece I swapped the diggers around for compositional sake and added a cruel sea on the turn as a reminder to get a tide timetable for the next day’s work.
The people on the beach at St Ives
Once I was above the high tideline I calmed down a bit and treated myself to fish and chips at The Beach Restaurant which boasted ‘Traditional Cornish Fish and Chips’ in that typeface you only get at the seaside.
You don’t need an excuse to eat fish and chips by the sea; you are expected to have it regardless of the calories. Guilt free fat. Delicious.
For the next hour or so I drew holiday makers on the sand, all red and basting beneath the sun.
For my next piece I was going to stay well away from any tides. I climbed up and to the back of the town to paint the tiny church of Barnoon. A tough and sturdy structure built from great rusty lumps of granite with a cemetery tipping preciously down to the sea below.
It was especially important for me to visit here, as here lays the last resting place of the wonderful Cornish artist Alfred Wallis. He was a huge inspiration to others who would become wealthy legends of the mid-20th century. Despite his innate genius he made little money while he was alive and felt he was victimised by jealous neighbours who were convinced he was secretly rich. He however lived in poverty and died in a workhouse in 1942 aged 87.
I often work half on site and half in the studio though on this piece I decided to work entirely on site. It was a splendid afternoon. A fine view for Alfred and I.
The Town and Smeaton’s Pier
TIDE TIMETABLE IN HAND! I popped out next morning to draw part of the town and pier.
Smeaton’s Pier was built at the end of the 18th Century and has the odd distinction of having two lighthouses. The first is octagonal and marked the end of the original pier, the second is on the end of an extension to the pier which was added at a later date.
So the only reason I could find out why it has two lighthouses was that they couldn’t be bothered to knock down the first lighthouse once the extension was complete.
Another odd thing about this pier is that it has its own chapel in the shape of St Leonards. Fishermen prayed here prior to going out to sea. The last odd thing is that it DOES NOT have its own art gallery. Not yet anyway.
This has to be one of the most painted views in Cornwall and a real challenge to bring something new to it. That said It was really enjoyable just sitting there (with dry feet) drawing and painting it all. The diversity of buildings ascending the hill and the sea beyond is a real gift.
You can easily see how and why this place it inspired people to change the face of western art. Whether you paint or not, do make that pilgrimage down the A30 as it will be well worth it.