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The Abstract Waves Of Cornwall: St Ives School

Abstraction

The Abstract Waves Of Cornwall: St Ives School

Just before the outbreak of the WW2, a small town in Cornwall, UK, became a haven for British artists. Built of granite and surrounded on three sides by the ocean, it was a perfect spot for painters because the light and landscape in St Ives are unique.  St Ives attracted people already in the 19th century, especially when in 1877 the railway reached Western Cornwall. But the real popularity the town enjoyed in the 1930s, when the painter Ben Nicholson and his wife sculptress Barbara Hepworth moved there in 1930. Let the abstract waves take you to Cornwall…

Cubist waves

Ben Nicholson, 1934-6 (painting - still life), 1934 - 1936, Tate Modern, London, UK

1Ben Nicholson, 1934-6 (painting – still life), 1934 – 1936, Tate Modern, London, UK

Having seen Picasso, Nicholson started to experiment with Cubism. Yet, one day he met a fisherman Alfred Wallis who in 1925, a year after the death of his wife, began painting. He painted marinescapes and views of ships, usually in a naive style, often with a distorted perspective.

Naive waves

Alfred Wallis, The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach, 1932, Tate

Alfred Wallis, The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach, 1932, Tate


Under his influence Nicholson started to paint in a relief manner, building shallow and abstract compositions on the surface of his canvases. Gradually, he added figurative elements suggestive of remote house roofs or boats.

Colour waves

Terry Frost, Blue Winter, 1956, British Council. © The estate of Sir Terry Frost

Terry Frost, Blue Winter, 1956, British Council. © The estate of Sir Terry Frost

After the war, another wave of painters came to St Ives. Among them was Terry Frost, an abstract painter who combined bright colours in various compositions to depict landscapes. In St Ives he could live cheaply, and made friends with other artists. Frost even worked as Hepworth’s assistant for a while.

Abstract waves

Roger Hilton, March 1960, 1960 Tate St Ives

Roger Hilton, March 1960, 1960 Tate St Ives


During the war, Frost was a German Prisoner of War in a camp in Bavaria. In St Ives he met Roger Hilton who shared the same fate during the war. Hilton is considered a pioneer of abstraction in Britain and he had a characteristic style: a thick impasto on his canvas was always covered by a couple of lines made with charcoal. Although it is impossible to find a distinctive style which would unite the artists working in St Ives, they are commonly considered a St Ives School.

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Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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