The good and simple life

A FEW DAYS AGO, we visited the Penlee House Gallery in the Cornish town of Penzance. After admiring its fine collection of art by painters who worked mainly in Cornwall during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially by members of the Newlyn School, I noticed a moss-covered stone in the gallery’s attractive gardens. It mentioned two twinned towns: Penzance and Concarneau.

St Ives Arts Club

Concarneau is a French fishing port in Brittany. Although I was probably less than ten years old at the time, I have some recollections of the family holiday we spent there along with our general medical practitioner, Dr C, and his family. Two memories of that holiday linger in my brain. One is of the excessively lengthy luncheons we had in our hotel’s dining room. Being a poor eater in my childhood, these meals with many courses did not appeal to me. I remember whiling away the time playing with discarded crab and lobster parts from which the adults had extracted the edible flesh. The other memory is of an unfortunate accident that occurred on the beach. Dr C was showing my young sister a sea urchin. Accidentally, it slipped out of his hand and fell onto my sibling’s bare foot. For many years, she remembered this painful experience.

Concarneau is remembered on the stone at the Penlee House Gallery because some of the artists, who spent much time painting in Newlyn, a fishing port next to Penzance, also painted in Concarneau. The French port, like Newlyn, also attracted French artists. Both places were home to ‘artists colonies’ at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries (for some details, see: http://www.stivesart.info/brittany-links/). St Ives, which is near Newlyn and Penzance, was also home to a thriving artists colony in that period. Today, one of the attractions of St Ives is the fact that serious artistic activity continues there. Stanhope Alexander Forbes (1857-1947), a highly accomplished artist based for much of his life in Newlyn, wrote that this close neighbour, almost continuation of, Penzance was his:

“…sort of English Concarneau.” (www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2003/important-british-pictures-l03123/lot.31.html)

The artists colonies that existed all over Europe and also in North America at the same time as those in Newlyn and St Ives became the subject of research for my friend, the art historian and travel writer, the late Michael Jacobs (1952-2014). For some unknown reason, Michael never learned how to drive. As a result, he depended on public transport and his friends to get him around the many places that he visited. In about 1984, two years after I had gained my driving licence, I agreed to drive him to Cornwall where he was researching its two artists colonies. We stayed both in Newlyn and St Ives in bed and breakfast accommodation. I enjoyed accompanying my friend whilst he made his enquiries.

An organisation in Newlyn let Michael the notebooks (or diaries) of Stanhope Alexander Forbes, who lived from 1884 onwards in Newlyn and died there. Trustingly, the keeper of these original handwritten notebooks gave them to Michael to peruse overnight. He hardly slept that night because he spent most of it feverishly trying to read as much as possible of this source of information about life in Newlyn’s former artists colony.

Michael was a sensitive fellow, who never wanted to upset anyone. This admirable characteristic of my friend backfired the following day. Our landlady provided us with a lavish full English breakfast. The table was covered with an ocean of food, piles of bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, fried bread, toast, black pudding, fried tomatoes, and much more. After we had both eaten, there was still a vast amount of food on the table. Michael said to me that we should not leave it uneaten as that would upset our kindly hostess. I said that I could not manage any more. So, Michael, not wishing to risk offending our landlady, managed to consume the huge amount of food remaining. Thoughtful as this was, it was not without consequences. For much of the rest of the day, poor Michael kept clutching his stomach that was not grateful for the load of food with which it had to deal.

We stayed in St Ives. The bed and breakfast place that we had booked was on a steeply sloping narrow street in the old part of the lovely town. Driving my car through streets like these, barely wider than my vehicle and often dangerously steep, was no joke. After that, my first trip to St Ives, I promised myself never to attempt driving in the old part of the town. I have stuck to that promise.

Our visit to St Ives was made special because Michael had to interview various artists in their studios and members of the St Ives Arts Club. The latter, which is housed in an old warehouse, was founded in 1890. Its early members included the artists Sir John Arnesby Brown, Sir Leslie Stephen, Adrian Strokes and W Titcomb. The Club’s informative website notes:

“All but one of the original Committee hung at the Royal Academy.” (www.stivesartsclub.org/copy-of-history).

I do not recall whom we met there, but we were permitted to enter parts of the Club not normally accessible to non-members.

While we were in St Ives, we did not visit the Barbara Hepworth Museum (first opened in 1976) and the Tate St Ives was not yet in existence; it opened in 1993.

By the time that Michael and I visited the two towns in western Cornwall, my friend had already done a great deal of research about artists colonies abroad. What struck him at the time was that in each of the former artists colonies that he visited in a number of different countries including France, Russia, USA, and Germany, he met experts who could tell him much about the colony in which they specialised but few of them were aware, as Michael had become, of how much the artists moved between the different colonies.

Michael’s research culminated in the writing of his book “The Good and Simple Life: Artist Colonies in Europe and America” that was published by Phaidon in 1985. Sadly, I have mislaid, I hope temporarily, my copy of this book, in which I am sure that he wrote a personal inscription. When we visited the Penlee House Gallery in September 2020, I looked at their bookstore to see if they stocked Michael’s book. It was not there and also the otherwise informative gallery staff had never heard of it, which is a great pity because it shows how the Newlyn and St Ives colonies were part of an international artistic network or community.

It was the visit to the Penlee that brought us to Penzance, a place that we had not considered visiting before. I am pleased that we went to the town because it offers many delights that exceeded our prior expectations.

Michael passed away six years ago. Although in the last few years of his life we saw him less often than previously because he was often away travelling or spending time in his home in Spain, a country which he loved, we think of him often with great affection.

India to St Ives

ST IVES IN CORNWALL is chock full of art galleries apart from the better-known Tate St Ives (highly overrated), the Penwith, and the splendid Barbara Hepworth house. Many of these galleries are best bypassed because they contain artworks of pedestrian workmanship and often poor aesthetic qualities. Last year, we visited a mediocre exhibition in the Crypt Gallery below the St Ives Society of Artists, which is housed in a deconsecrated church. So, when we passed the gallery today, I was reluctant to enter until I spotted that the exhibition was entitled ‘Cornwall and India’. The artist whose works were on display is called Paul Wadsworth.

Born in East Anglia in 1964, Paul studied at the art school in Falmouth (Cornwall). He told us that he has made three lengthy visits to India. One trip was to Rajasthan, another to Goa, and a third to Kerala. While in India, he commissions lovely leather-bound books to be made in Pushkar (Rajasthan). He fills these with line drawings and painted sketches. These visual records become the basis for his paintings inspired by his observations of India. Some of his Indian paintings are completed in India and others in his studios in Cornwall. To my eye, Paul captures the essence of India well: its colours and vibrancy.

Some of the paintings on display were those inspired by India. Others that involve skilful application of paints with a palate knife depict the spirit of the landscape of Cornwall. These paintings, Paul explained, are not done from photographs or preliminary sketches, but straight from true life. Given how the sky often changes so quickly in Cornwall, the artist has done a great job of seizing the moment and recording it on canvas.

Circus is another subject that attracts Paul. Some of his vivid depictions of life in the circus arena were on display. Complementing these, his sketch books have many lovely images created whilst he spent time with Kathakali dancers in India. Some of these sketches have been translated into paintings.

Paul spent time with us, patiently answering our numerous questions as well as showing us his works. He has the gallery for three weeks, starting 20th September 2020 and has filled it not only with his artworks but also the materials that he uses to create his works of art. He has created an exhibition within what he will use as his temporary studio.

I am truly glad that I entered the Crypt Gallery despite initial misgivings. If I had not, I would have missed out a highly enjoyable collection of good quality, well-executed art and meeting Paul, its affable creator.

She sailed on a leaf

IVES

 

St Ives in Cornwall is one of my favourite places to visit in the UK. This charming, picturesque town straddles a shoulder of land separating two beautiful bays. One of its most endearing features is the quality of the light. The light has the same special quality as that which bathes Venice in Italy. Maybe, it is the extraordinarily light that attracted many artists to St Ives in the past and still in the present. As extraordinary as the light is, so is the story of St Ia after whom St Ives was named.

During the 5th or 6th century AD, St Ia was due to travel from Ireland to England along with several other Christian missionaries, many of whom were later to become saints. When Ia discovered that she had been left behind, she began praying and shedding tears. One of her tears fell upon a leaf floating in the sea near where she was praying. She noticed that the leaf began growing in size. It became so big that there was room for her to stand on it. Putting her trust in God, she set sail on the leaf, which carried her across the sea to Cornwall. 

After landing in Cornwall, she set up a small oratory. Sadly, she was killed at Hayle by a local chieftain. She was buried at what is now the town of St Ives, where the main church in the town is dedicated to her memory. St Ive’s Parish Church is well worth visiting not only to contemplate St Ia but also because it is a fine example of a 15th century gothic church. The church contains many superb features including a lovely café where you can enjoy tea or coffee and home-made cakes in a peaceful environment.