Carla Scarano D’Antonio enjoys the range of work of a thriving artistic community exhibited at the Lightbox gallery in Woking
‘I believe that the understanding of the material and the meaning of the form being carved must be in perfect equilibrium’ Dame Barbara Hepworth
The Upper Gallery at the Lightbox in Woking displays substantial examples of significant paintings of the St Ives School from the Ingram Collection, one of the largest collections of modern British art in the UK, and founded in 2002 by the entrepreneur Chris Ingram. The exhibition features the work of some artists who were born and lived in St Ives, though most of the painters of the group chose to move there, attracted and inspired by the coastal beauty, the impressive scenery and the picturesque fishing environment. The area was the centre of this thriving artistic community from the 1920s and, unsurprisingly, in the past, it had attracted artists such as Turner and Whistler. Moreover, after the extension of the Great Western Railway to west Cornwall in 1877, the coast was easily reachable.
The St Ives School combined figurative art with modernist ideas influenced by English and continental avant-garde movements. A significant figure was Alfred Wallis, whose work is not on display at the exhibition. He did not train in an art school and had been a sailor, and was admired by the professional artists of the group for the ‘primitive’ quality of his work.. He ignored perspective and painted landscapes from memory, a world of sails that had disappeared by then. Painting on cardboards from scratches, he always maintained a distinctive character in his pieces. This is what most of the artists of the St Ives School aimed to achieve, though they expressed it in a more sophisticated way compared to Wallis. In fact, they combined modern artistic theories, influenced by Russian constructivism, Cubism and abstract art, with the experience of the natural beauty and the working life of the Cornish coastline, with its unique quality of light reflected off the water.
Their choice to live and work in St Ives necessarily merged with their pictorial background and with what was happening in the wider art world. This is represented at different levels in the pictures on display that highlight in turn the influences of the Impressionists, of Constructivism, Cubism and the developments of abstract landscapes. Interesting examples are the paintings by Winifred Nicholson, Laura Knight, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Roger Hilton, Bryan Wynter and Bryan Pearce, just to name a few. Only one or two pictures are on display for each artist but they give a good idea of the variety and versatility of this artistic community.
‘Woman playing a piano’ (1930) by Winifred Nicholson blends the figurative rendering of the chair and the piano with the impressionistic transparency of the woman’s dress. Her profile is barely sketched but her hair has a detailed texture. This merging of different pictorial styles reveals the exploration of different techniques pursued by the artists of this school.
A similar approach, though in a different direction, is in the works of Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. She was a famous sculptor born in Yorkshire (her studio and sculpture garden are one of the most popular sites in St Ives), who moved to Cornwall in 1939 with Nicholson. They worked side by side and were leading figures in the artistic field and in the St Ives community. Both represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, respectively in 1950 and in 1954. Ben Nicholson’s deconstructed shapes evoke Cubism in the simple almost monochromatic figures. The juxtaposition of the objects of his ‘Still Life’ (1926) and of ‘Green Jug’ (1978) evokes classical figures in an abstract rendition.
An apparently more naive approach is in Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s ‘Untitled 1 (View of St Ives)’ (1943), in pen, ink and watercolours, an exquisite picture that catches the colours, rocks and buildings of the Cornish town in a unique, immediate approach. In a different way, Roger Hilton’s pioneering work and his essential, provoking paintings testify the variety of talents of the St Ives School. The ‘Standing Female Nude’ (1973) and ‘Peacock’ (1973) reveal an intentionally disruptive vision in the broken lines and dotted colours as well as in the sexual undertones. Cubist deconstruction is also present in the ‘Still Life’ (1946) in watercolours and ink by Bryan Wynter, a well-crafted work that combines and interweaves lamps, bottles, candles and trays in an interesting intersection of shapes. It is an effective experiment testifying to the sophisticated exploration the members of this school were engaged in.
A very different approach is in one of the best pieces of the exhibition, ‘Three Pears’ (1987) by Bryan Pearce. He suffered from phenylketonuria (PKU), which affected his metabolism and, if untreated, could lead to mental disorder. His mother encouraged him to draw and paint, and ‘Three Pears’ is a good example of his precise and yet original work. The pears are positioned in the centre of the picture depicted in a perfect shape. They are not ‘real’ pears but evoke forms, flat and juicy on a brown and white plate surrounded by a striped tablecloth in a light blue background. They reveal the essential, serene vision of the artist and his capacity to create a parallel world that is archetypal and yet modern; it defines structures, reassures and conveys aesthetic pleasure.
‘Primitive’ and abstract merge in this interesting exhibition, highlighting the beauty of the Cornish coast that not only inspired breathtaking landscapes but also contributed with its atmosphere and natural beauty to the development of a thriving group of artists, all distinctive in their versatile and variegated works.
The Ingram Collection: The St Ives School, 6 April – 23 June 2019, The Lightbox, Woking £5 Day Pass or £7.50 Annual Pass | Under 18s Free