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Seeds of Abstraction, St. Ives Art by Allan Storer MA.

Updated: Feb 20

The traditional view of the art in St Ives tends to focus on its landscape and nature as a

source of inspiration. Its sweeping light and battered windswept coast caressed with a sub-tropical climate in the summer months is a famous factor for having attracted artists. The stereotype image of artist with palette and brushes in hand poised to paint a picturesque scene advances little interest in the successful abstract painter reinforcing those in the modernist camps polemic that Britain has had little expectation from its artists with an emphasis on the traditional only and little on experimentation.

Dynastic Phenomenon oil on canvas

140cm x 140cm, Allan Storer

However following World War II a small group of British modernist artists engaged in the exploration of something else were to become Britain's international representatives of abstract values. Experimenting with mark and gesture, the use of material and paint, their work was comparable to a host of international artists including Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko leading the world in the US. with Jean Dubuffet in France and Alberto Burri in Italy.

The similarities between the British and international art reached beyond our shores, let alone the small St. Ives community where its integration in the 1940's created an acrimonious split culminating in the founding of the Porthmeor Group.

Indeed coincidence or "chance" has certainly played its part in St. Ives eminence in the development of British modernism. Fundamental were Euston Road School artist Margaret Meliss and art critic Adrian Stokes. Married in 1938 they moved to St.Ives in 1939 in a bid to escape WWII London and purchased "Little Parc Owles" in Carbis Bay.

Soon to move in were friends Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth including their triplets, nurse and housekeeper. For several months Margaret and Adrian’s life was "turned upside down". Margaret became interested in the works of naive painter Alfred Wallis and Ben encouraged her to paint small abstracts, at the same time monopolizing her husband's studio until Ben was forced to move out and paint elsewhere. Naum Gabo, his wife Miriam and Hampstead artist and friend Wilhelmina Barns-Graham were to arrive too. Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson were soon to come to the fore of a small group of modernists along with artists Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Alan Davie, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter and Peter Scott. Other visitors included Victor Passmore, Graham Sutherland, William Coldstream, Julian Trevelyan, Bryan Winter, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Sven Berlin and Hyman Segal.

Cut off from the mainstream and financially viable St Ives provided a safe refuge for individuals promoting the values of international modernism. Detached from the mass prejudice of post war Britain and Europe manifested in themes of patriotism and nationalism a modernist art culture was allowed to develop. Naive artist Alfred Wallis and potter Bernard Leach's work contrasting with sophisticated mainstream culture was a central embodiment at the heart of artistic practice.

Coming Philosophy, oil on canvas

100cm x 100cm, Allan Storer

The Cornwall land and seascape part influencing the artists alongside external factors, created visual parallels with abstract work on an international level. It followed that contemporaries with a common goal encountered similar technical and ethical issues in their experimentation with painting and pictorial space following cubism and the crisis of modern art following WWII. Questioning pre-war values by a a post war generation of artists "could neither start again, nor stay as it was, as if nothing had happened". Lawrence Alloway wrote "torn by conflicts of pre-war formality and post war directness".

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