Setting Sail into Abstraction

1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) 1943-5 by Ben Nicholson OM 1894-1982By

With the complete revolution of the artistic world after WWII, in Britain, international abstractionism became a leading movement. Artists were moving into new regions and thus new subjects, landscapes and artistic viewpoints were being explored. The small Cornish seaside town of St Ives became the epicentre of British abstractionist art in the 20th century.

St Ives become a colony for modern British art and its artists such as Alfred Wallace, Patrick Heron and Christopher Wood produced imaginative pieces that differed from the unrealistic and patronizing images that the Victorian artists had depicted of this place. The art world became extremely curious of St Ives and with time, the location was propelled into a respectability of importance equivalent to the art capitals of Europe like London and Paris. British artists, mainly young men, flocked there with inspiration for pieces based on the dazzlingly blue waters and rich yellow sands that were unobtainable before the emergence of the modernism they celebrated.

Ben Nicholson first visited St Ives in 1928 prompting his return during World War II to settle there with his wife, Barbara Hepworth, and create abstractionist artwork. Hepworth was one of the first great female sculptors, and she soon invited Naum Gabo, innovative Russian sculptor, to join them. They created the culture of the publication Circle which explored international constructivism in painting and sculpture.

Nicholson’s oil paint and graphite piece 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) represents the beginning of a series of landscape pieces that Nicholson created in Cornwall as he moved away from his white reliefs of the 1930s. He explores the placement and perspective of different objects and how they can be positioned in picture space in an abstract and unrealistic format. The Union Jack symbolism on the mug reflects a celebration of the post-war world and of Britain. The different grounds of the painting create a sense of realism and the movement of the water in the distance produces dynamism and reflecting the life of the town.


Nicholson created the basis of what became the St Ives School of artists who flocked together during the 1950s and 1960s. The result of these artists coming together saw a new gallery built in St Ives, which exhibits the Tate collection of St Ives School art. At the forefront was Wilhelmina Barns-Graham who arrived in St Ives in the 1940s and stayed in her studio there until her death. Barns-Graham developed her power as a modern painter in St Ives, focusing on abstractions based on perception in her famous glacier paintings. Barns-Graham’s Glacier Crystal, Grindelwald (1950) is a renowned piece in the abstract movement as the image employs a notion of liberalism and abstraction through the exploration of different tones, complementary colours, depths and shapes. The reflection of the glacier is conveyed through the opaque and transparent application of paint to the canvas. Visible brush strokes also create a sense of reflected light, dynamism and movement, celebrating the seaside town of St Ives.

The St Ives School were not all painters though. Barbara Hepworth created the most internationally well-known work of the group: Single Form (Memorial) (1961). Her earlier sculpture Pelagos (1946) reflects her environment as the title translates from Greek to English to mean ‘sea’; the beautiful water surrounding her clearly inspired her artwork. The entwining nature of the spherical object reflects the arms of the land, which encase the sea in the middle in a sort of globe-like replica. Hepworth stated that she wanted the strings in the middle of the construction to represent ‘the tension I felt between myself and the sea, the wind or the hills’ thus linking the piece to the important natural elements of the much cherished St Ives.

Ultimately, the St Ives artists combined their appreciation of Modernist artistic developments with the inspiration of their surrounding environment. This unlikely Cornish coastal town was transformed from a small fishing community to an artistic hub that enabled internationally renowned artists to set sail into an adventure of abstraction.

Photographs: Flickr IDs: jpbrewer1963, SamPeel1993

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