Long before the St Ives School of painting began, artists had been visiting the small fishing town on the north coast of Cornwall. The first recorded visit was by Turner in 1811. Following the development of the railways, other artists began to visit the far west. These included the famous American artist Whistler and the great English impressionist painter, Walter Sickert.
By the early twentieth century, artists were beginning to take up residence in the town. Julius Olsson established the first school of painting here and other prominent artists at that time were John Park and Borlase Smart.
In the 1920s Bernard Leach set up his pottery and started producing work which relied heavily on the Japanese influence. This began a wider arts movement in the area, following the loss of many artists to this area during the First World War. Not only artists and various crafts persons congregated in the town, but poets and writers settled there too. D. H. Lawrence had already spent some time in the area, during the war. Virginia Woolf spent many summers in St Ives and based her novel, To the Lighthouse, on Godrevy Lighthouse across St Ives Bay.
In the late twenties, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood visited St Ives and discovered the paintings of Alfred Wallis. Wallis had started life as a fisherman and later had become a rag and bone merchant. He was illiterate and inarticulate. After his wife died, Wallis began to paint. At this time he was in his late sixties and had not received any sort of tuition in art. Consequently his paintings were particularly primitive. In spite of his discovery by Nicholson and Wood, Alfred Wallis was never accepted by the majority of St Ives artists. He died alone and penniless in Madron Workhouse, never suspecting that his naïve paintings would someday sell for large sums of money. He is buried in Barnoon Cemetery.
Christopher Wood was born in Knowsley, Liverpool in 1901. He studied drawing at the Académie Julian in Paris in 1921. He entered fashionable artistic circles, meeting Augustus John and the Chilean diplomat Antonio de Gandarillas, with whom he began to live. Gandarillas supported Wood and introduced him to the use of opium. He also provided more useful introductions to Picasso, Georges Auric and Jean Cocteau. Although his painting has been regarded as charmingly untutored, he learnt from these acquaintances, especially from the elegant line drawings of Cocteau. Wood spent much of his time in St Ives during the late twenties, painting local scenes. He committed suicide in 1930 by throwing himself under a train.
Wood’s friend, Ben Nicholson, married Barbara Hepworth and they moved to the area in 1939. Hepworth’s sculpture was heavily influenced by the local landscape and she continued to live and work in the area until her death in 1975. Nicholson's earliest paintings were still life but, in the 1920s, he began painting figurative and abstract works inspired by Post Impressionism and Cubism, producing his first geometric and abstract reliefs in 1933.
By the time the Nicholsons moved to St Ives, there was already a new colony growing in the area. Adrian Stokes was writing and painting in Carbis Bay and Naum Gabo arrived about the same time. Gabo was a Russian avant-garde constructivist artist with an interesting scientific background. He created unusual, flimsy sculptures very different to the more solid representations of Hepworth.
Following the Second World War, many younger artists were attracted to St Ives, due to the growing reputation of the established group of painters, sculptors and potters. Only one of these was born in the area – the abstract artist Peter Lanyon. Lanyon chose to make direct reference to the local landscape, building an imagery and association into his relief constructions and related paintings. In his painting Porthleven, visual and structural information about the Cornish fishing harbour was combined with figurative suggestion. In subsequent work he often manipulated naturalistic data in ways reminiscent of Alfred Wallis, evoking the tactile experiences of moorland, field and cliff through scruffy, churning or knifed paint-handling.
Patrick Heron was born in 1920 in Leeds but lived in St Ives from 1925 to 1930. He studied at the Slade School from 1937 but his painting was interrupted by the war. In 1945 he settled in London and began to paint again. Heron turned to abstract art, under the influence of American abstract painting, 1956 and moved to Zennor in Cornwall in 1956. He has remained in the area since then.
Bryan Winter is a landscape painter born in 1915 in London. He studied at Westminster School of Art from 1937 and at the Slade School from 1938 to 1940. In 1945 he settled at Zennor, near St Ives. At first he worked figuratively but soon evolved a dynamic, more abstract style.
Terry Frost was an abstract painter born in 1915 at Leamington Spa. He worked at various jobs concerned with radio and electricity and started painting whilst a prisoner of war in Germany in 1943. He moved to St Ives 1946 and studied under Leonard Fuller. Later he again lived in St Ives between 1959 and 1963 before moving to Banbury
Roger Hilton's initial inspiration was derived from the rhythms and colours of the natural world. This has been interpreted as a mark of his association with the St Ives School, corroborated by his frequent visits to that town from the late 1950s. He moved to St Just, Cornwall, in 1965. By the late 1950s Hilton was speaking of his frustration with the limitations of abstract painting and his discovery that images could be generated out of the process of painting itself. The imagery that had consistently featured in his drawing-books emerged in his later works. Using cheap poster paints and children's brushes, Hilton returned to the childlike subjects that had characterized his early work: animals, boats, a horse and cart and nudes. These now provided metaphors for adult concerns. In his late works, Hilton retrieved a childlike freshness of vision but one marked by a lifetime’s experience.
By the late 1960s, the Penwith Society of Arts and Crafts had become firmly established but, before long, many of the original group of artists had disappeared. However, the opening of the St Ives Tate Gallery in 1993 has regenerated interest in the area and many new artists are making their base in St Ives today.