Art | Past Masters

St Ives art

This Cornish town was at the heart of 1950s modernism; now the abstract art made there attracts passionate collectors.

January 23 2011
Katrina Burroughs

“Paris, Berlin, St Ives.” Collector Tara Physick is paging through vintage periodicals, reading out the major centres of the art scene in the late-19th and 20th centuries. “Looking at editions of The Studio, it’s quite astonishing how significant this area of west Cornwall was, and how influential.”

Physick started buying works by St Ives-based painters such as Bryan Pearce (1929-2007) and Peter Lanyon (1918-1964) 12 years ago, when she moved to the West Country and launched her online hotel-booking business, Hotel Direct. One of her favourite purchases is a 4.5m-wide triptych by Terry Frost (1915-2003), an oil and acrylic called Sonnet to Black. Frost’s best-known paintings are vividly coloured abstracts but he was also a virtuoso with a palette of blacks, and this late work perfectly balances bright with sombre tones. “It’s very vibrant and powerful without being imposing,” says Physick. “And it distracts us from the force-12 gales in winter.”

St Ives has been a magnet for painters since the late 19th century, its legendary light attracting figures as distinguished as Whistler and Sickert, and by 1885 a community of artists had assembled. But St Ives’ golden era, when the little fishing town was at the cutting edge of international modernism, is book-ended by two events: the arrival of Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and her husband Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) in 1939; and the death of Peter Lanyon in 1964.

The names that set collectors’ antennae atwitch, aside from Frost and Lanyon, Nicholson and Pearce, include Patrick Heron (1920-1999), Roger Hilton (1911-1975), John Wells (1907-2000) and Bryan Wynter (1915-1975). And while the name “St Ives” doesn’t denote a single style, it has become shorthand for abstraction inspired by the landscape. The highly individual artists who settled there produced works ranging from naïve harbour scenes (Pearce) to cubist-influenced abstracts (Nicholson) and constructivist paintings featuring natural forms (Wells). What they all have in common, however, is the visceral feeling they provoke in fans.

Philip Hughes, co-founder of Logica plc, began collecting St Ives paintings 30 years ago, while he was chairman of the global IT firm. His first purchase, made in 1978, was a Ben Nicholson called Shadows and Lilac. Since then, Hughes has assembled a covetable collection with his wife, Psiche. “We have a Patrick Heron, who’s extraordinary in his use of colour, three Lanyons, an Alfred Wallis and probably a dozen Roger Hiltons – he’s a great god of mine. Hilton is just different. What intrigues me is his palette; he uses very few colours but they’re carefully sorted out, the different browns, red, yellow, black. I spent two days just looking at one show at Tate St Ives and made little copies of the paintings to get to grips with his use of colour,” says Hughes, who today is a full-time artist.

Post-financial crisis, the market in St Ives painters has been as stormy as the Cornish coastal weather. But it reflects Hughes’ opinion of Hilton’s status; while values for Frost and Heron have dipped, Hilton is smashing auction records. An oil on canvas entitled October 1955, estimated at £40,000 to £60,000, sold for £103,250 at Sotheby’s last November. An affordable way to a Hilton, according to Simon Hucker, director of the Jonathan Clark Gallery, is to buy a work on paper. A 1960s pencil drawing such as the enchanting Untitled (Seated nude with bird) can be had for £2,500.

Also on the up is Hilton’s great friend Bryan Wynter. “His work is about as cutting edge as 1950s British painting gets,” says Hucker. “They’re insanely intense – less accessible than Hilton.” The challenging nature of his large frantic patterns has put a brake on values, until last November that is, when a Wynter (The Indias, 1956) estimated at £60,000 to £80,000 fetched £115,250.

Mark Goodman, COO for an asset management company, has been collecting St Ives paintings for more than two decades. “We have a house on the south coast of Cornwall and we relate to the greys, blues and greens,” he says. He names among his favourite artists Nicholson, Heron, Frost, Wynter and St Ives-born Peter Lanyon, whose work he describes as “incredibly innovative, as he seeks to portray movement through the landscape or conjure up storms”.

London gallery Gimpel Fils has long been associated with Peter Lanyon. “He had a different approach to art right from the start,” says director René Gimpel. “Perhaps he doesn’t have the liveliness and humour of Hilton and Frost, but the people who collect St Ives sooner or later pick up on him.” Indeed, Lanyon receives respect bordering on reverence from his devotees, who include David Bowie. Gimpel’s own Lanyon-worship began before he knew about art: “My brother and I used to stay with the family as children in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and he let us drive his Mini around the airfield. He also arranged for us to be taken up in a glider. We decided he was a demigod.” The major oil on canvas Climb Out, completed just before his death, was recently sold by Gimpel Fils for £150,000, while a good gouache might be found for £22,000 to £30,000.

Traditional art-market wisdom says that value is increased by a high-profile exhibition, and Lanyon has just been the subject of a retrospective at Tate St Ives – so now may be the time to invest. “Prices are down, across the board,” says Gimpel, “and I’m trying to buy now. But there are a lot of people around thinking like me, so it’s not always as cheap as I hope.”

See also

Collecting, Cornwall