As I was going to St Ives...
Jeremy Melvin, 17 March 2020
Before trying to understand St Ives’ extraordinary part in British and international art over the last century, let’s start by thinking of it as a fairly typical pre-modern English town, writes Jeremy Melvin.
Its urban structure has a logic – if not clarity – derived from adapting topography as a basis for its streets and building plots, with due emphasis on commerce and religion. Its main geographical feature is the sea which seems to surround it on all sides, and from it low-rise hills. So it has a variety of beaches which makes it an attractive seaside resort for swimming, sand lounging, surfing or boating. Nor is it lacking in prominent sites for chapels and look-out posts. The sea also gave the town its original raison d’etre – fishing, and later, like many other Cornish and West Country ports, for piracy, smuggling and colonial adventurism.
It was the sea, with its reflections of light from all directions and in all conditions, that attracted artists from the mid 19th century onwards. Facilitated by Brunel’s Great Western Railway, Turner, a connoisseur of English seaside settings, made a visit: one of his finest paintings, Rain Steam and Speed (1844), ponders the phenomenon of railways. But it was not until the early 20th century, the discovery of the local fisherman/artist Alfred Wallis (1855-1942) by the cognoscenti and the arrival of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth in the 1920s, that gave St Ives its rare continual communion between local almost folk art and international artistic activity, with modernism at its height. During the 1930s and 40 (Nicholson and Hepworth’s friend Naum Gabo arrived in 1939 from Russia via Paris before moving across the Atlantic), a slew of English artists, some of whom like Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron had local as well as international connections, made St Ives a centre for artistic activity and appreciation.
An exhibition at what was then called the Tate Gallery in the mid-1980s demonstrated the public’s appetite for the St Ives School. Tate, in its expansionary mode between the successful creation of its first regional gallery in Liverpool in the late 1980s, and the wildly popular Tate Modern (opened 2000) recognized that appetite in establishing its second regional outpost at St Ives, commissioned in 1988 and completed in 1993. The gallery was designed by the talented but under-sung duo of Eldred Evans and David Shalev, who had made a mark on Cornish urbanism with their Truro Law Courts. The gallery is located on one of the littorals and on the site of a former municipal gasworks; with some set piece architectural devices like the entrance rotunda and a form that climbs a steep hill, the site was turned into a suitable setting for art, with some magnificent if spatially challenging galleries.
The gallery occupies a magnificent site on the Cornish coastline, between two beaches a municipal car park and graveyard. The new gallery required a large excavation.
The outpost quickly proved successful, with 120,000 visitors in its first year, so much so that it became a victim of its own achievement. Intended as a venue for showing work with connections to St Ives, of which Tate has formidable holdings, it attracted more many more visitors than anticipated. More visitors brought more appetites, and for curators, more opportunities to expand the programme by placing the art of St Ives and its artists in an international context. The gallery was too small to capitalize on the popularity of the art for which it had to a great extent been responsible. That led to a decision in 2015 to re-order and upgrade the facilities of the existing gallery, to include education facilities and to create an entirely new space for temporary exhibitions, which could not only bring focus to specific St Ives-related issues, but also to showcase evolving contemporary art practice. The first part of the brief was given, appropriately, to Evans & Shalev, while the new gallery was won in competition by Jamie Fobert. He was already making a name for himself in the world of design for arts, and would subsequently be commissioned to reorder and extend the legendary Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge (whose founder Jim Ede was one of the first to recognize Alfred Wallis as a significant artist) and the National Portrait Gallery in London.
View across the roofs cape of Fobert's extension towards the new art and staff entrance, offices and workshop. The ceramic tiles reflect the light, echo the presence in the town for most of the 20th century of the legendary potter Bernard Leach, and were made by students at the nearby Falmouth School of Art. Jamie Fobert Architects, Tate St Ives, Cornwall ©Hufton+Crow
Fobert explains the challenge. ‘The new gallery had to be seamless [with the existing building] and hidden’, concealed by the slope of the hill. It also had to meet the requirements for full Government indemnification so it could host work from any national or international collection, be daylit and almost infinitely flexible in potential layout. If all that sounds like a typical (and typically more or less impossible) brief from a curator to an architect, it has added piquancy here because of the quality and public esteem of the gallery’s displays, and the strength of its existing architecture.
View from Porthmeor Beach, the original entrance drum is a powerful architectural form on the seafront. The new building is visible behind and to the right of it. Tate St Ives, courtesy of Tate photograph by Rikard Osterlund
How Fobert has achieved it is remarkable. He picks up on what the Tate St Ives director Anne Barlow describes as the ‘drama of the setting’, both the topography and the elemental power of Evans & Shalev’s design, while also displaying great skill and sensitivity in understanding the site and the underlying programme of facilitating public understanding of the St Ives school and its connections. A series of Fobert’s watercolours and sketches depict local rock formations – part of what attracted artists in the first place – and suggest how they inform his design.
Fobert made a number of sketches of local rock formations, which artist local artists and informed his design.
The site became available when some low-grade housing alongside the original gallery was earmarked for redevelopment, leaving a steep slope between a municipal car park and the ‘corniche’ overlooking Porthmeor Beach, whose rolling waves are used by surfers almost every day of the year. Here, behind the new housing, Fobert inserted a single large volume which achieves the ‘seamless’ merger with the existing galleries at level three. The new space is rather higher than they are, with a deep roof structure and six remarkably ingenious roof lights (designed with Max Fordham & Partners) which make it ‘feel like a day-lit space but the works are not exposed [to harmful effects’ explains Fobert, acknowledging the importance of natural light to the St Ives school. The rooflights poke through the roofline to create a publicly accessible roofscape, their visual impact faintly echoing the headstones in a nearby cemetery. Also at high level is the staff and art entrance, reached from the car park, with space for plant, admin and, crucially for a gallery of international standard and ambition, a workshop for art handling, conservation and preparation for display.
Plan at level three, showing the 'seamless' junction between new and old. Tate St Ives Drawings ©Jamie Fobert Architects
Plan at level four, showing the roof structure, and also the new Clore Studio inserted into the old gallery by Evans and Shalev, which is a flexible space for education and informal talks and performances. Tate St Ives Drawings ©Jamie Fobert Architects
As Fobert explains, the gallery itself occupies a potentially awkward trapezoidal space, a rectangle with one diagonal side, some 12m below the top of the hill behind. Filling the site would give 500sqm of space, a decent size for a single gallery. His architectural concept instead turns it from a potentially ordinary large gallery into a flexible facility for displaying different types of art and assisting with its interpretation. The key to this lies in how the space is laid out, and the way it is potentially divisible, cutting out the diagonal left space for two or three identical, regular bays. Opting for three bays gives greater flexibility, allowing for a series of smallish, intimate spaces, while still leaving the potential for a single large space, or even a combination of intimacy and openness. The series of exhibitions since the gallery opened in 2017, says Barlow, have tested this flexibility beyond what she or Fobert anticipated.
Tate St Ives, west sectional elevation ©Jamie Fobert Architects
This flexibility is inscribed in the roof. The six roof lights mark six possible subdivisions (two in each bay), allowing each to have some architectural definition as well as natural light, though for particularly sensitive works on paper they could be blocked out. Between the sky and the exhibits are deep beams (in a structure designed by Price & Myers), strong enough to hang partitions or heavy artworks, also part of the light management strategy.
Construction section through roof light ©Jamie Fobert Architects
Visiting the gallery – especially one with as inventive a programme as Tate St Ives – on any single day can only give a snapshot of what it can do. On my visit, the new gallery had a fascinating exhibition of Naum Gabo, a totemic figure in the St Ives universe because of his internationalist life history and presence at one of modernism’s core crucibles, the early Soviet Union. It revealed the breadth of his practice, from more or less purely architectural works, such as the proposal for the ill-fated Palace of the Soviets, to Constructivist-like studies for an airport, to the sensuous and wiry forms of his better-known series of Objects in Space. But no Constructivist could resist writing a manifesto (his was written with his brother) or the lure of performance, so part of Shostakovitch’s Leningrad Symphony plays on a loop and provides an acoustic background to the whole exhibition.
The new gallery offers great flexibility for installation, and offers excellent natural light. Jamie Fobert Architects, Tate St Ives, Cornwall ©Hufton+Crow
Equally impressive are the displays in the original galleries, as well as a witty little temporary exhibition by Emily Speed of a video and drawings, satirizing the way male architect-designed spaces tend to trap women. But the main purpose of these galleries is to explain the context and display the work of the St Ives school. The connections of St Ives artists to the Modernist world, especially Paris, are represented by, for example, early works by Nicholson which chart his journey from the figurative to the abstracts for which he is best known, alongside works by influences like Bonnard and Matisse. The post-World War II period is equally interesting, with works by Heron and Lanyon hung alongside those by Nicolas de Stael and Jean Dubuffet.
For an exhibition of Otobong Nkanga, the gallery was divided but still felt spacious. Otobong Nkanga exhibition at Tate St Ives 2019 courtesy of Tate
Overall, the effect of the galleries and the hang of works chart a remarkable sense of the physical presence of St Ives, its effect on certain artists and how that informed (and was informed) by wider artistic influences. It is wonderfully, gorgeously serendipitous, exuding both a sense of familiarity and novelty – famous works by famous artists, striking works by less famous ones, and minor works by the great all overlap to give a continuously shifting series of impressions and sensations.
The gallery can be curated to create intimate experiences with many objects (Anna Boghiguiann exhibition left), or contemplative opportunities to contemplate large artworks (Luke Hayes right) Anna Boghiguian exhibition at Tate St Ives 2019 courtesy of Tate photography by Kirstin Prisk & Huguette Caland exhibition at Tate St Ives 2019 courtesy of Tate, photography by Luke Hayes
Experiencing all this is a treat, especially with Barlow to add insights, a treat experienced last year by 300,000 visitors. As we walk through the gallery which curves around the upper level of the entrance rotunda, she points out some of the highlights, their origins and significance to the collection. ‘Oh’, she adds, ‘there’s a Rothko at the bottom of the stairs’, lurking out of sight and marking his visit to the town. A gallery that dares to hide a Rothko is not just brave, but great.