Book of the Week: The St Ives Artists by Michael Bird

As spring, sun and long, light days finally arrive in England in time for a bank-holiday week-end, city-dwellers take off westwards in search of surf, sand and wide open skies.  To mark the arrival of a new season of holidaymakers in Cornwall, Belgrave St Ives launch their annual St Ives exhibition 2013 this week-end. It’s packed full of work by the group of Modern British artists who transformed a quiet seaside town into an internationally renowned art colony: amongst them, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Sandra Blow, Terry Frost, Adrian Heath, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Margaret Mellis, Breon O’Casey and Bryan Wynter.

Meanwhile, at Tate St Ives there is a last chance this week-end to see the centenary exhibition for William Scott – the painter who liked to associate with the St Ives artists, spending his summers in Cornwall – before it closes on 6th May.

What was St Ives art really about, asks Michael Bird in The St Ives Artists, my Book of the Week? There was no St Ives School, no manifesto or group philosophy, and certainly no consistent connection between the place and the art.  And yet St Ives was unique in the history of modern art: a provincial town that gave its name to an international art movement.

The St Ives Artists unravels the many overlapping narratives that combined to make this place significant at a particular moment in time. The story of post-war St Ives starts with Terry Frost’s arrival in this small seaside town in May 1946: the moment that the artist stepped off the train at the end of a long, slow journey across the bombed-out Midlands to start a new life in an exotic coastal landscape unblemished by war. It finishes abruptly in 1975 with the deaths of Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton and Barbara Hepworth. In between, over 192 fascinating pages, Michael Bird describes personal stories of artistic creativity and conflict against a backdrop of wider social and cultural change.

Visit St Ives today and you sense the particular qualities of its light and landscape that inspired a generation of artists. In the words of novelist Helen Dunmore, the book’s Guardian reviewer: ‘Those who read this book and visit St Ives will see some of the ghosts that make sense of the present day’.

Lucy Myers, Managing Director

The St Ives Artists

The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time by Michael Bird. 2008.  Paperback.  192 pages. 22 b&w illustrations. £19.99 / $40