I’ve described St Ives as a sea of would-be artists dining out on a reputation the town gained and lost long ago. But that’s not to say St Ives’ artistic reputation wasn’t well earned. The real stuff is at Tate St Ives and the Barbara Hepworth Museum & Sculpture Garden, which is managed by the Tate.
Tate St Ives feels (and probably is) the smaller of the four Tates and we can now proudly claim to know all of them. There’s no permanent collection here, but the museum does do it best to showcase work from the St Ives schools. Many St Ives artists claimed it was the light that took him here, combined with spectacular seascapes and landscapes. And there’s some truth to that. But perhaps more to the point is that the market for art was depressed between the world wars and for sometime after the second. Built on a now a declining fishing industry, St Ives was able to offer cheap loft space, where fishermen once kept their nets, that could easily be converted into generous studios.
We were introduced to Artists from the St Ives School of Modernists and a complimentary Paul Feiler retrospective as well as new work from Richard Deacon. It’s an important space that allows you to get past the dross that fills the shop front galleries and place the real St Ives artists in their context, while appreciating the best of today. (The one irritation was a group of American tourists who were going on to London and were only interested in asking about Tate Modern, which was very rude. You wouldn’t insist on only talking about Guggenheim Bilbao while touring Guggenheim New York.)
The Hepworth is both unique and outstanding. Dame Barbara Hepworth lived here, the Trewyn Studio, from 1949 to her death in a house fire here in 1975. She suggested the idea of converting the studio and home to a museum in her will. With the exception of overcoming the fire damage, not an awful lot of work was required. The studios have been left as they were when Hepworth died, with works in progress on their plinths, coffee jars and ash trays on the side. But there’s nothing morbid about it all. The garden’s been maintained as she kept it and is full of her sculptures: from 1958, she kept back artist’s casts of many of her bronzes, placing them here. While St Ives can seem remote, it’s worth the effort of a visit just for this.
Uploaded: 26 July 2005