Sunday, July 27, 2008


BRITAIN'S ART COLONY BY THE SEA, by Denys Val Baker (pub. George Ronald, London, 1959). What a steal! Mine written all over it tho' it was Alan Pose first spotted it. Told me I'd certainly be interested unless I already owned it. Well, St Ives is a sacred site within one of my key areas of interest. Of course I recalled the title but have never seen the book. Should have been his, then, but he passed. (The article on collecting will be written anon!)
A beautifully made book (missing dustcover? --no matter, leaf-green hard-back), pristine after half a century. Denys Val Baker states that it's "not a book of art criticism" but an "introductory survey" of St Ives art & artists, hoping that "more exhaustive studies may follow". Quite obviously written by such an enthusiast as the ex-editor of the Cornish Review would have to be, no jargon, plenty of reproductions of paintings, sculpture, pottery, & fine photos of the artists in situ (John Wells, paint-spattered Peter Lanyon, Barbara Hepworth in her now famous, tho' scarred with personal tragedy, Trewyn studio, John Pecks, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham in dramatic silhouette painting above the bay, Bernard Leach, Sven Berlin sculpting with mallet & chisel outdoors). The black & white plates arent the compromise they'd be in a contemporary publication; black & white is the colour of the historical one could say, and besides, the b & w reproduction is positive as colour, not for a moment denoting its absence.
Although there is a St Ives history & the history that takes one there, just one visit is sufficient to appreciate the rare reflecting-mirror of art & place. It's one of those locations in the world where the iconic pictures recall the place and vice-versa. Therefore there's a continuum and an ever-current expressive potential within the equation of art & place. (Because of Georgia O'Keefe, prime amongst others, Taos & the New Mexico desert would enjoy similar status I guess...) It adds up to tradition by now... The book, by extension, is both historical & current.
The frontispiece photograph is the quintessential evocation of the scene (--altho' morning or afternoon tea isnt quite the St Ives legend; and in whose studio I'd love to know? --could work it out via identification of the paintings in the room, especially the harbour scene on the easel with its sketch behind), after all, whom better to represent St Ives in the Fifties than smart jacketed Peter Lanyon, raising mug of tea to mouth, long skirted Wilhelmina Barns-Graham standing over the low table of teapot & jug & crockery (playing mother perhaps, the Fifties after all, and therefore her studio?), and could be Winter rather than manners, the straps of the skirt over long sleeve jumper, the men dressed warmly (and is that a tall sock over Lanyon's trouser leg or a trick of the light?)... On the other side of the small table is Sven Berlin, in fisherman's beany, Augustus John-gypsyish, with pointed black beard, flamboyantly cut jacket, mug in hand and behind W B-G's elbow is John Wells, hands about his cup (it must be Winter!), the most reserved by expression. They're listening to Guido Morris, mostly hidden by Peter Lanyon... Typical clutter of studio, "Peinture Moderne" poster on wall...
One can never know everything and though a b & w reproduction of an egg tempera, Cornish Scene, cant say it all, I'm as struck by the luminous high terrace & steps overlooking ocean by Stuart Armfield ("traditionalist" Val Baker describes him in long list of same, John Park, Leonard Fuller, Bernard Ninnes et al), --and perhaps it's the wild flowers occupying the right foreground balanced by the large gulls & the scudding clouds--, as I am the familiar Tunnard, Hepworth, Wallis & Jewel... Another name to investigate! The painters, the sculptors, the potters (-- lovely photo, "Bernard Leach discusses the merits of a pot with his son David and apprentices at Leach Pottery"), a late Fifties' snapshot...
Denys Val Baker's book is like a travel guide for artists & art lovers, documenting even as it solicits custom! Personally, I cant wait to get back there --some years now since Bernard & I visited, staying with Kel Bowers & Dooz Storey, renewing acquaintance with Bob Deveraux at the Salt House gallery, etc etc, rolling around heaven all day... Until then, employ book as magic carpet!

In passing, I picked up Mervyn Levy's little monograph on Ruskin Spear (Academy Chicago Publishers, 1986; first published W & N, UK, '85) in Bendigo recently. I happened to mention it to George Hartley (the Marvell Press George Hartley, friend & publisher of Larkin) at Collected Works the other day, in the context of wonderful finds in second-hand bookshops. The less famous English artists, he said, that's my interest too. Touche! He said he'd never ever seen anything on Ruskin Spear and would have snapped it up himself! I hadnt realized it was hard to get. I mentioned the frontispiece painting of John Betjeman, Poet Laureate Afloat (c1974, oil) : Larkin had done a television programme with Betjeman, complained about the filming & all in his usual way, but he loved it really, George said. Never got to meet him myself though, he added.
To be continued...

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