Pre-Colony St Ives Art
Prior to my book The Dawn of the Colony - St Ives Art pre-1890, the story of pre-colony St Ives Art was little known, with mention being made merely of the visits of Turner in 1811 and Whistler in 1884. However, my research demonstrated that a number of leading artists of the day visited the town prior to the establishment of the colony in 1885. With the book having now sold out, I set out below some of the principal artist visitors with illustrations of some of their most interesting paintings.
Turner's sketches of St Ives from 1811
The first depictions of Cornwall tend to be the engravings commissioned in the early nineteenth century from artists such as J.M.W.Turner, Joseph Farington and William Daniell. Only Farington did one of St Ives (published 1813) and this has an unrecognisable foreground. However, Turner during his visit in 1811 did do some six pencil sketches of the town from various viewpoints that can now be viewed on the website of the Tate Gallery. Some of these are quite minimal and indistinct but the best are
As indicated before, none of these sketches were made into engravings or were used for paintings.
Mid-19th century depictions of the town
The key date for Cornish art tends to be 1859, when Brunel's rail bridge over the River Tamar at Saltash was completed, as this encouraged artists to travel by rail to West Penwith. Prior to that date, it is quite difficult to locate paintings of St Ives. The Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro have a series of early anonymous watercolours, which show that St Ives had a prosperous pilchard fishing industry, a fleet of sailing ships operating from the port and a lot of mining activity all around. An oil by an unknown artist, N.Conata, possibly an Italian, owned by the Town Council and which probably dates from the 1850s, depicts a similar scenario. As a consequence, the town developed a reputation as a dirty, foul-smelling industrial hell-hole and was not on the itinerary of such artists as did venture down to West Penwith at this juncture, such as Clarkson Stanfield and Thomas Creswick.
The 1848 visit of Edward William Cooke RA (1811-1880)
One artist who did visit in 1848, when he stayed a week, was Edward William Cooke, whose father and uncle had produced Turner's engravings of Cornwall. From the sketches he made, he produced a major exhibition piece, The Pier and Bay of St Ives, which was hung at the Royal Academy in 1853 and was sold to the Lord Mayor of London for what was the large sum then of £294.
The 1860 visit of James Clarke Hook RA (1819-1907)
Hook, who had been recommended to visit St Ives by his friend, John Opie, stayed in the town from 3rd July to 16th September 1860, one of the longest visits by any artist prior to the mid-1880s. He was immediately impressed by the town’s “wonderfully primitive simplicity”, by the plethora of subjects and by the fact that “there was everywhere among the fishermen that unmistakable air of being in earnest about work”. Three of his Royal Academy exhibits of 1861 were St Ives scenes - Leaving Cornwall for the Whitby Fishing (untraced), Sea Urchins (Guildhall Art Gallery) and 'Compass'd by the inviolate sea' (family collection). The first and third of these featured the family of Daniel Perkin, as does another work Deep Sea Fishing (originally entitled Another Dog!), also owned by Guildhall Art Gallery.
Un Voyage aux Mines du Cornouailles 1862
An article Un Voyage aux Mines du Cornouailles written for the French publication Le Tour du Monde by M.L.Simonin in 1862 contains a fascinating view of St Ives, engraved by Cordier after a drawing by the Belgian artist, Jean Baptiste Henri Durand-Brager (1814-1879).
This shows the extent to which mining activity still dominated the surroundings of St Ives and features the new mine engine house which had been erected on Pednolva Point in 1860. It also shows that work had not yet commenced on the ill-fated wooden pier. The drawing must make Durand-Brager one of the very first foreign artists to visit St Ives.
Bristol artist visitors
Unsurprisingly, Bristol artists were some of the first to take advantage of the new rail link and Charles Parsons Knight, Samuel Philips Jackson, George Wolfe, and Charles Brooke Branwhite exhibited St Ives scenes during the 1860s and 1870s.
N.B. THE WOLFE OF ST IVES (BELOW) IS FOR SALE
The visits of Charles Napier Hemy RA (1841-1917)
Dated paintings place the young Charles Napier Hemy, then studying in Antwerp, in St Ives in both 1869 and 1871. Salford Art Gallery have an interesting depiction of the wooden pier under construction dated 1869 - probably the work that he exhibited at SBA in 1870 under the title The Pier Head, St Ives. He also exhibited at Glasgow in 1870 Fishing for Gurnets, St Ives. Until recently, Annabel's nightclub owned a painting by Hemy of a party aboard a fishing boat in the harbour dated 1871.
The 1872 visit of John Brett RA (1831-1902)
Brett stayed in St Ives on his second trip to Cornwall in 1872, spending much of the month of September based there, staying at 3 Bowling Green Terrace. During this time, he did some fifteen sketches of the town and the Bay in various media. Some of these sketches he later worked up into larger finished pictures in his studio and he exhibited At St Ives at the Spring Exhibition of the RBSA in 1874 and St Ives Bay (dated 1878) at the Royal Academy in 1881. Having been brought for £300 from the Academy show in 1881, it was donated to Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow in 1928.
John Mogford's visits to St Ives
Mogford was a regular visitor to Cornwall from the early 1860s until his death in 1885. He is perhaps best known for his watercolours, but his oil painting A Break in the Clouds - Crossing the Bar - St Ives was shown in Liverpool in 1885, the year of his death; however, the state of the wooden pier in the painting suggests that it was executed earlier and a work simply entitled Crossing the Bar was shown at Glasgow in 1873. There are plenty of tales of sailing ships being driven during storms on to the shore around Carbis Bay, but here the anxiety seems to be concentrated on whether the ship will get over the sand bar, which existed at that time beyond the pier.
N.B. THIS WORK IS FOR SALE
Another Mogford work, Summer Moonrise, St Ives has also surfaced at auction in Denmark.
Theodor Weber's depiction of the ill-fated wooden pier
From the 1860s to the 1880s, the saga of the new wooden pier dominated headlines in St Ives - even leading to a riot when it became clear that investors had lost all their money. Needing further protection for the fishing fleet, it was agreed that a new pier was needed, but the option chosen of a wooden pier running out at right-angles from the back of Smeaton's Pier proved to be the wrong one. Poor design, poor construction and the death of the contractor all proved fatal and the pier began breaking apart before it was even completed. Accordingly, this is one of the few paintings which appears to show the pier at its full extent.
Theodor Weber (1838-1907) paid several visits to Cornwall and it is likely that this painting dates from the mid-to-late 1870s. It had certainly been acquired by an American in 1880.
N.B. THIS WORK IS FOR SALE
Watercolour depictions of the town from the 1870s
There are a number of watercolour depictions of the town from the 1870s, including works by Falmouth connected artists, Thomas Hart and James George Philp, who both painted most sections of the Cornish coast. Hart's view, which must be from the mid-1870s, shows the mine engine house on Pednolva Point and the wooden pier stretching out at right angles from Smeaton's Pier. In the foreground is a popular viewing point, which was impacted by the imminent construction of the railway.
Surrey artist, James Bingley, visited Cornwall in 1875, and captured the dilapidated group of houses at the top of Smeaton's Pier, which were to be converted by the artist, John Bromley, some thirty years later, into 'Quay House', whilst Birmingham artist, Frederick Mercer, was in the county the following year. Mercer's viewpoint is quite similar to that used by Turner and captures the mill wheel of Chellew's Mills, near Trenwith Terrace.
The visits of William Trost Richards (1833-1905) in 1878-80
William Trost Richards is a famous American Pre-Raphaelite marine painter, who paid a number of visits to Cornwall during his first trip to England in the years 1878-80 and who went on to produce an enormous number of Cornish paintings, introducing the beauties of the Duchy to a vast American audience. His influence cannot be underestimated and yet there is not a single work by him in a Cornish public collection.
The idea of a trip to paint England’s coastline in 1878 seems to have come from Harper’s Magazine, who specifically wanted an illustrated article on the Cornish coast. Richards, however, could summon up little enthusiasm for the idea, feeling that “the trouble and toil of going will be very great”. Eventually, when Scribner’s Magazine also expressed an interest in articles on the English coast, he decided to make the trip but only “from a sheer sense of duty”. He also received encouragement from one of his patrons, the wealthy cast-iron wheel manufacturer, George Whitney, who agreed to help with the finances of the venture. Nevertheless Richards sailed for Liverpool on 1st August 1878, with “a fainting heart” and “all my available capital”. Due to Whitney’s patronage, Richards made an effort during his visit to write to him every other Sunday, recounting his experiences, and he often included what he called a “coupon” - a superb miniature watercolour (c.3.5” x 5.5”) of a scene that he had witnessed. These not only gave Whitney a visual record of the sights that his generosity had allowed Richards to visit, but also proved useful marketing tools, for Whitney was often able to persuade acquaintances and fellow collectors to commission off Richards larger versions of these scenes.
On his arrival in Liverpool, Richards headed with his family straight down to Cornwall, but he complained to Whitney that rail travel in England was not very comfortable, being rather “shaky”, albeit the officials were very helpful. They stayed initially in Penzance before moving to Marazion, and he was very impressed with the local landscape, which was much more varied than he had imagined. He told Whitney, “I have been busy surveying the coast and think I ought to be here a lifetime to do any justice to it....Some of the strangeness is wearing off, but I find these cliffs very different from anything I have ever seen before.” He was particularly taken with Land’s End, which he described as “the realisation of all that Conanicut hints at”. It became the yardstick by which all other cliff vistas were judged. However, it was not just the cliff scenery that enthused him. “The days are not long enough for sketches of all the picturesque old churches, romantic coves, and tremendous rocks...It is impossible to concentrate the mind upon a single subject when all is so strange and so exciting.”
Richards and his family moved to St Ives on 18th September and stayed there for a week. Interestingly, he told Whitney, “It is one of the least frequented towns of this district, partly because of a bad reputation as a dirty fishing town, and partly because it has been a little out of the main line of travel”. Richards found “modest lodgings whose windows overlook the town, the bay and the wide beach.” He described St Ives as “a very primitive fishing town, full of old picturesque houses and fishing boats”, with “enough subjects for figure pictures to last a first-rate painter a lifetime.” Richards, though, was not a figure painter but he did a small oil of the view looking across Porthmeor Beach towards the Island. At the back of the beach can be glimpsed the net lofts, that were soon to be converted into studios. He was also very taken with the Lelant Towans. “One of the most interesting points of Cornish scenery is the long beach and the sand hills or Towans, as they are called, around the bay of St Ives. They are 200 or 300 ft high, covered with grass and inhabited by millions of rabbits! The Church of Lelant is built in among these sand hills, and you can imagine I found a beautiful picture in this lonely church and the wind-swept sand!” During his return visits, he also completed a magnificent watercolour of fishing boats on the harbour beach - see image at the bottom of the page.
George Boughton's depictions of Cornish Wrestling
During Trost Richards' visit to England in 1878-80, he spent the winters in London, mixing with leading figures in the art world, including George Boughton (1833-1905), a friend from America. Albeit born in Norfolk, Boughton had been brought up in America and had been elected a member of the National Academy of Design, New York, before settling in London where he also became a Royal Academician. It seems most likely, therefore, that it was at Richards' recommendation that Boughton visited St Ives in 1881. During this visit, he completed two paintings of boys indulging in Cornish Wrestling, which was a popular and lucrative sport at that time. Whilst his Royal Academy exhibit of 1882 depicts two boys wrestling, its original title, St Ives Bay, indicates that the artist was also projecting a rural idyll, with rosy cheeked sisters (and in the background, a caring mother) looking on and a flock of geese and apples from the orchard suggesting good wholesome fare in a delightful setting.
Oswald Sickert and Otto Scholderer in St Ives in 1881
This little known visit is discussed in detail in Issue 1 of my newsletter, The Siren.
The German artist, Otto Franz Scholderer (1834-1902), who was born in Frankfurt am Main and studied at the Städel Academy of Arts from 1849-1851, moved to London in 1871 and became a great friend of fellow German, Oswald Sickert, and art tutor to his son, Walter Sickert. In 1881, he joined Oswald Sickert (but not Walter) for a summer holiday in St Ives, and produced a number of interesting works. The major painting was Fischeputzende Magd (Fish-cleaning maid), which was hung at the Dudley Gallery later that year. This has also been called Alter Hof in Cornwall (Old House in Cornwall). The woman is shown kneeling on the cobbles in a small court outside her home, as she guts a fish. This building is now Bumbles Cafe. However, he also produced, from sketches, two strikingly atmospheric seascapes, painted from one of St Ives’ beaches - most probably Porthmeor Beach. These are principally of sea and sky, with a thin strip of sand in the foreground, and, whilst they feature a ship offshore, the principal interest is in the light in the sky being reflected on the gentle waves. A pencil sketch of a similar subject has a mooring rope as a decorative foreground. These works have distinct similarities to Whistler’s impressions of St Ives, but, of course, pre-date them.
It is unlikely that Scholderer accompanied Oswald and Walter Sickert on their further trip to St Ives in 1883, but he did exhibit at Dundee in 1884 Fishermen’s Houses, St Ives, priced at £42.
The visits of Thomas, Edith and John Henry Hume
There is much confusion and incorrect information circulating re this family.
Edith Hume (née Dunn) (1841-1913) was a Truro girl and she and her husband, Thomas Oliver Hume (c.1833-1916), and his son from his first marriage, John Henry Hume (1858-1881), visited St Ives a number of times during the 1870s and 1880s, albeit they lived in Petersfield, Hampshire. All three exhibited St Ives scenes at the Royal Academy.
In 1872, Edith exhibited St Ives Sandwoman at the SBA, whilst, in 1874, she exhibited A St Ives Fishgirl at the RSA. In the main, though, it is difficult to tell the location of her subjects from her titles, but the sketch in Academy Notes of her 1885 Royal Academy exhibit, Preparing the Tackle, certainly places this scene in St Ives.
In 1878, John Henry Hume exhibited A Peep at St Ives at the Royal Academy and a St Ives subject at Bristol in 1879, whilst Thomas exhibited Near St Ives and Moorland, nr Hayle at the SBA in 1873 and St Ives Bay at the Royal Academy in 1888. The latter would appear to depict a man loading a hay cart above St Ives, with a view across to Godrevy, and is a fine work.
N.B. THIS WORK IS FOR SALE
Edwin Ellis's 1882 depictions of St Ives at SBA
In the winter exhibition of the Society of British Artists in 1882, the Nottingham artist, Edwin Ellis (1841-1895), exhibited a series of paintings of St Ives - probably the first time that a group of St Ives paintings had been shown in London. Titles included Drawing A Seine, St Ives, Pilchard Fishers, Mackerel Boats, Cornwall, St Ives Pier, Mending Nets and Running for Shelter. The work owned by Stockport Heritage Services known now as The Harbour is most likely St Ives Pier. It certainly features the distinctive pepper-pot lighthouse on Smeaton's Pier and is a good example of Ellis' work, for his broad-brushed, impressionistic 'plein air' paintings often led to him being referred to as a member of the 'slap-dash school'.
Alberto Ludovici Jnr's
Fish Sale, St Ives of 1883
At this juncture, artists often chose their next sketching destinations from work viewed at exhibitions and it will be no coincidence that Ludovici, whose father was the Treasurer of SBA, decided to visit St Ives in the summer of 1883, where he met Walter Sickert and his family. During his visit, he produced one of the most iconic images of St Ives - his Fish Sale being a year earlier than Stanhope Forbes' one at Newlyn.
Richard Harry Carter (1839-1911)
Richard Carter started painting only as a sideline, for the first Census in which he recorded his sole profession as ‘artist’ was in 1891. However, he had a passion for both Art and Nature that lifted his work way beyond that of a mere amateur, and he exhibited at the Royal Academy and other London societies from 1864 and has impressive works in the collections of Cornish Museums. He married Ellen Dunn, Edith Hume's sister, and may well have visited St Ives in the company of the Humes.
He exhibited several St Ives scenes in 1877 but his major St Ives works date from 1883-4. The best of these is The return of the missing boat, a huge watercolour that was exhibited at the RI. The Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, have some other St Ives watercolours by him.
Whistler's 1884 visit
Whistler spent most of January 1884 in St Ives, with his pupils Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes. Still with limited resources following his bankruptcy, he painted mostly in oils on small panels, primed in grey, but he also executed a number of watercolours, a medium that he had rarely used before 1881. His subjects were principally views of sea and sky seen from the beach, but he also continued his series of close-up depictions of shop-windows, which, with their emphasis on tonal values and geometric design, are considered some of his most innovative work of the period.
Most of Whistler’s St Ives paintings are small - roughly 5” x 9”, with some as tiny as 3.5” x 5.75” - , and his letters constantly emphasize the small scale upon which he is working. He refers to his oils as “little beauties”, “little things” and “little games”. In fact, he uses the term, “game”, more than once. For instance, he tells the American sculptor, Waldo Story, he has been doing “delightful things - and have a wonderful game to play soon”. The small size and lack of finish of his Venetian etchings and pastels had been one of most remarked upon aspects of his Fine Art Society shows. If such comments were forthcoming in relation to works in those media, where large-sized works were uncommon, Whistler was already anticipating the furore that would be caused by his small works in oil, a medium in which it was generally accepted that size denoted significance. Indeed, Menpes indicates that the other artists in St Ives at the time found Whistler “a continual source of wonder”. “ “The man must be idling.” they said. “How can one work in earnest sitting on a borrowed chair and with nothing but a small pochade box and a grey-tinted panel? Real hard work necessitates a great canvas and easel, large brushes, and at least a sketching umbrella.” "
Menpes also records how Whistler was most put out that the fisherfolk gave fish to Sickert but not to him and that this had enabled Sickert to ingratiate himself with their landlady at 14 Barnoon Terrace. Accordingly, he behaved disgracefully towards the landlady and his attempts to curry favour with the fishermen were doomed to failure due to his condescension and the 'tom-tit scheme' that he invariably wore.
The Dowdeswell exhibition, Notes - Harmonies - Nocturnes, at which a dozen or so of Whistler's St Ives paintings were exhibited in May 1884 was not a great success. Reviews talk of “much irreverent tittering” and of men making “boisterous jokes” about the exhibits, coupled with “noisy brayings that they would not take any of them as a gift”. The critic from the Kensington News, who had rated Whistler’s Venetian work highly, dismissed this “arrangement” as “flat, stale and unpredictable from an artistic point of view”. In the main, the works were “little momentary impressions which a more modest artist would keep from the public gaze”. The reviewer from Society called it “an extraordinary collection of pictile nightmares”. There were few references to his 'Cornish pieces', but several of these were criticised by The Morning Post as exhibits that “have no more claim to be accounted pictures than an acorn to be described as an oak, or a heap of bricks a house.” Nothing much sold and so Whistler and Dowdeswell will have been immensely relieved when on 1/7/1885, the London barrister, Sir Henry Stubbs Theobald purchased a large number of works from the 1884 show and these formed the vast majority of the 31 works bought off Theobald by Charles Freer in 1902.
Whistler paintings of St Ives included in the May 1884 exhibition at Dowdeswells, New Bond Street
The Pier - A Grey Note No.1 Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco
The Angry Sea No.2 Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.
Grey Mist at Sea (w/c) No.22 Birmingham Art Gallery
Violet and Silver - The Great Sea No.33 Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.
The Sea and Sand (probably Sea and Storm - Grey and Green) No.36 Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.
Cliffs and Breakers (probably The Green Headland) No.37A Hunterian Museum, Glasgow
Grey Note - Village Street (probably Little Shop - Grey Note) No.41 Hunterian Museum, Glasgow
Low Tide (probably Sands, Blue Note) No.45 Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.
Note in Blue and Opal - The Sun Cloud No.52 Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.
Grey and Silver Mist - Life Boat No.54 Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.
Sunrise - Gold and Grey (w/c) No.55 National Gallery of Ireland
Blue and Grey - Unloading No.56 Freer Gallery, Washington D.C.
There are other St Ives works by Whistler in the Freer Gallery collection
William Henry Bartlett in St Ives in the early 1880s
Bartlett's Royal Academy exhibit of 1884, A Bad Wind for Fish, which was described by Henry Blackburn in Academy Notes as a Cornish coast scene, is likely to be a St Ives subject. He also exhibited that year at the Grosvenor Gallery a work dated 1884 entitled Hauling Launces, which caused some confusion amongst London critics, who did not appreciate that a launce was a sand-eel. In his subsequent article on St Ives, published in the Art Journal in 1897, Bartlett explained the operation.
"During the summer months, the launce or sand eel fishing becomes the most familiar sight, it being almost of daily occurrence. After all the necessary preparations have been made in the harbour, the long white boat, containing generally about four men, pulls away for the strand under Tregenna Castle [i.e. Porthminster Beach]. Here, after landing one of the crew, the remainder pull away for about fifty yards from the shore, where the net is cast, and to which the man on the shore has a line attached. Hauling then begins from the boat and from the shore, and the boat gradually draws nearer the shore, until, in about half an hour’s pulling, the net bag containing the results of the catch comes into view, and, re-embarking their man, a return is made to the harbour. The whole incident is a picturesque one, and as the main portion of it takes place so close to the shore, one has every opportunity of studying all the varied effects of movement, both of the crew as well of the sea and sky.”
The painting was hailed in the Magazine of Art as Bartlett’s finest work to date. “The motionless clouds hang in the calm sky, the sea and the boat with its fishermen glow under the warm sun, and all things suggest a good haul....The life and movement of the sea are capitally suggested, the incident is set forth with vital force and fullness, and the figures are excellent; the men who are engaged in the hauling, and the boy who keeps the stern of the boat off and prevents her drifting ashore, are well contrasted and full of character and truth.”
Bartlett's 1897 article contained a number of other attractive depictions of St Ives and its locality, but none of the original paintings have surfaced. One that has is a work entitled The Ferry, St Ives dated 1885, depicting a fishermen rowing a couple of women acroos the harbour. In this, Bartlett has used artistic licence re the positioning of the church tower!
It was in the winter of 1885 that it was felt that the colony was established when three artists - Henry Harewood Robinson, his Irish fiancée, Dorothy Webb and the Scot, William Eadie, decided to over-winter in the town.