The Porthmeor painters’ studios of St Ives

Pilchards and painting. It seems a strange union, yet in the dilapidated but much-used Porthmeor artists’ studios of St Ives, there it is: a sedimentary record of a coexisting pair of communities at the heart of the Cornish town.

In the 1880s, the painters Sickert and Whistler both visited St Ives and were entranced by its very particular light. Other painters followed and soon the small fishing village, built on the pilchard industry, found itself with its own thriving artists’ colony. The newcomers found sympathetic spaces to work – bathed in that famous light – in the net-lofts above fishermen’s cellars on Porthmeor Beach. It’s a symbiotic arrangement that has continued ever since.

Through a turbulent 20th century, St Ives drew artists of the stature of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron and Sandra Blow, and this tiny place became an unlikely nexus of modern art. It sounds incredible but – in the years after the second world war – there was serious talk of a New York/St Ives axis emerging, with the Cornish town displacing Paris on the map of modernism. Clement Greenberg, the New York critic who did more than anyone to establish abstract expressionism as the de facto art of the modern age, visited, as did Mark Rothko. But New York, it transpired, didn’t need St Ives and the focus shifted – to London, to Berlin and on.

Yet it was the Porthmeor studios that ultimately attracted an outpost of the Tate nearby. Most bohemian quarters, from Chelsea to Montmartre, become victims of their own success, as wealthy property buyers, attracted by a neighbourhood’s artistic reputation, ensure that the next wave of would-be artist-residents is priced out. But Porthmeor’s lofts still function, and their ownership through the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust has allowed them to continue in this unprofitable use in the midst of St Ives’ astonishing property inflation.

These humble, ad hoc buildings have seen the creation of sublime works. What makes them so extraordinary is the continuity of tradition they represent; today, artists working there include Iain Robertson, Clare Wardman, Bob Crossley and Richard Nott and the emerging painters Naomi Frears and Sax Impey. But the studios are simple, vernacular structures, slammed by Atlantic wind, soaked by corrosive sea spray and ground down by the shifting sands of the beach. In places, they look as if they are held up by the caked-on layers of paint, or lashed together like a makeshift raft. Broken windows are patched and boarded, leaky roofs bodged. They need work, and, at last, are about to get it.

From October, phase one of renovation begins, overseen by the architect M.J. Long. Unable to raise rents, the trust is squeezing in a couple more studios, and is trying to secure funding to allow the second phase of the work to continue. “The most important thing,” says Long, “is to concentrate on keeping the people there, even if the buildings have to change a little. There have been fishermen and artists together here since 1890. That they’re both still here together is extraordinary.”

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic. To contribute to the renovation fund, call 01326 252203

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