Now, you may know that the Tate in St. Ives has recently reopened following a whopping four-year refurbishment project that has seen the gallery double its floor space for displays, as well as adding more facilities for learning.
As a result, Tate St Ives is now able to give a permanent presence to those iconic 20th century artists who lived and worked in the town – Alfred Wallis, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth amongst others – but also allows them to support this with a programme of large-scale temporary seasonal shows.
The result is not just a jaw-dropping architectural structure on the beachfront of one of the most beautiful bays in St. Ives, but also a place to find one of the most exciting, diverse and challenging collections of modern and contemporary art in the UK.
And I say this having never visited the town of St Ives before, let alone the Tate. That’s right, this isn’t going to be a review of how the radical reworking of the gallery has improved the visitor experience, simply as I have nothing to compare it to. Rather, this is going to be my thoughts on witnessing this wonderful gallery – and the nearby Barbara Hepworth garden – for the first time.
Giving a permanent space to artists so inextricably linked to St Ives is right and proper so, of course, the new permanent display sees plenty from the likes of Barbara, Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis and Roger Hilton. But the display extends out so much further than this, to more than what is expected. Rather, it takes these artists and examines their connections to other artists working in the same era such as Picasso, Mondrian, de Kooning and Mark Rothko, thereby creating a stunning collection that considers both these artists but their broader involvement and influence on the wider circle of modern and contemporary art.
Frankly, I was utterly blown away. Why didn’t anyone tell me the permanent collection at St Ives was so good?
The display is a largely chronological affair that places St Ives artists, most of whom were drawn to the area as a place of comparative refuge from London and the cities during the Second World War, in the context of art trends and influences in the same periods. It showcases them as a single community but also demonstrates the influence of their work, how their shared ideas influenced art and artists across the world.
But such an ambitious take could only work if a great collection of diverse and relevant artworks were obtained to frame around the St Ives artists. And, well, the Tate has unequivocally delivered on this.
Over 120 stunning artworks on display – paintings, drawings and sculptural forms. I could wax lyrical about each but that would be onerous and wouldn’t give you an idea or any appreciation for the splendour of seeing these pieces together.
There are about eight galleries in total which house these permanent works and, please, let me give you a quick walk-through as a sense of what it gives the visitor:
You’re welcomed in to a high-ceilinged lobby. Light floods through the glass cubes, illuminating Barbara’s Curved Form, an elegant bronze whose sides close in, though never quite meeting, instead leaving itself open to receive all this natural light.
And this sets the scene perfectly for the first room that focuses on the big names associated with St Ives, whether it’s through more abstract paintings from artists such as Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon, or still-life, such as Mackerel on a Plate from William Scott.
Then we’re widening out in the next room, looking at the art in the interwar years. Seeing how works in London and Paris fed into ideas in St Ives – and vice versa. An instantly recognisable Mondrian composition of lines and simple colours rests on the wall behind a collection of smooth, eminently tactile Hepworth pebbles whilst, opposite, an Alfred Wallis ship and Braque still-life look on. There’s a cubist Picasso shown alongside an abstract work from Ben Nicholson from the same period – all lines and geometric forms – and it works perfectly.
Then we’re into the war and bleak works from Graham Sutherland compare and contrast so well with abstract works of austere greys and dark greens from Terry Frost.
After the war sees an acceleration of ideas from a multitude of artists with exquisite smooth forms from Henry More showcased alongside jagged shapes and lines from Sandra Blow and Jean Dubuffet. Fascinating forms from Lygia Clark share space with deceptively simple works from Li Yuan-Chia.
Lubaina Himid’s Between the Two My Heart is Balanced, 1991, brings identity and the role of African migration into the frame, hanging alongside a Bridget Riley, whilst, opposite, Pauline Boty was one of the few women artists to consider Marilyn Monroe, and the manipulation and burden of her image, and her The Only Blonde in the World, 1963, makes a fitting companion piece with its interrogation of identity and lens also.
Then add that to the warped, jagged de Kooning and the smooth effortless grace of another Hepworth nearby. And, in the distance, you spy a Mark Rothko nestled serenely in a quiet corner of the room and, well, what an experience….
Each work here fascinated me. But, more than this, an underrated component of curating is getting artworks from a multitude of artists to hang well together, for them to ‘speak’ to each other in the rooms where they are on display. To work both individually but also to contribute to the wider collection of pieces on display, whether they be paintings, drawings or sculptural works. And this for me was the most impressive aspect. Each room revealed so much.
Up the road is Trewyn Studios. Not a name you’ll hear very often these days, but it was the place where Barbara Hepworth both lived and worked from 1949 to her death in 1975. Now it is known as the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden as the place has been turned into a museum, in line with the artist’s wishes, with the studio and much of the work that was there given to the nation and placed in the care of the Tate Gallery in 1980.
The result is a wonder; an extraordinary oasis where Barbara’s magnificent sculptural forms stand in perfect harmony with the tranquillity of her garden. Indeed, most of the bronzes are in the positions in which the artist herself placed them. In fact, Barbara picked the studio in the first instance much because of this garden – ‘Here was a studio, a yard and garden where I could work in open air and space.’
Of course, each of these sculptures is a blessing but some of my favourites are included amongst them, such as Sphere with Inner Form, a piece that has such tender maternal overtones with this spherical form sheltered within a protective womb. And contrast this with her more angular works, especially a piece that seems almost to be of a pelvis, holes apparent in places where you would expect to see joints.
And the variance in size is extreme, from the smallest nudes that you could hold in the palm of your hands to vast abstract sheets of bronze that tower above you, and never once does any link to nature or the natural world seem broken or even strained. It’s as if these works are not just extensions of us, but also extensions of the gardens, the trees and the grasses around them. There’s a symbiotic harmony here that’s mesmerising.
It was a fourteen-hour round-trip for me to get to St Ives, plus add in all those extra costs for accommodation and food whilst I was down there. But, I tell you, for me it was worth every penny. It’s not something I’m going to be able to afford to do often but this was a five-star visit all the way.
Not only are the Tate and Barbara Hepworth’s Museum home to some of the most exciting and diverse modern and contemporary art linked to St Ives, but the works are showcased in elegant galleries and beautiful gardens that fit seamlessly into the gorgeous natural surroundings.
Tate St. Ives, Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall. Admission: £10.50/£9.40 concessions (without donation £9.50/£8.50)
Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, Barnoon Hill, St Ives, Cornwall. Admission: £7.70/£6.60 concessions (without donation £7/£6)
Combined ticket for Tate St Ives/Barbara Hepworth Museum Sculpture Garden. One day visit to each site over 7 days £14.50/£13.20 concessions (without donation £13/£12)
All installation images by me.