Thirty two years ago this April I visited West Cornwall with a rucksack, a borrowed one man tent, a sleeping bag, a bread knife, sketchbooks, and pens and pencils. The ten days it took me to leisurely walk the coast path between Penzance and St Ives was to leave an indelible impression that has yet to leave me.
What inspired this trip beyond my frustrations in the fifth floor painting studio and the irritations of the teaching staff at the Central School of Art I no longer recall. I had possibly been reading at least one naturalist¹s diary of walking rural Britain. I know I had been repeatedly visiting the Museum in Plymouth in order to see the Peter Lanyon painting during trips to visit my parents. Cork Street galleries were exhibiting examples of Heron, Hilton, Lanyon and Davie, and by the spring of 1975 I was beginning to appreciate Roger Hilton's work that at the Serpentine Gallery in the previous year I had initially dismissed.
Correspondence was ongoing with my old tutor Alexander Mackenzie who had moved house as well as moved colleges (the foundation school at which I had spent a year had moved from the Barbican into the new Plymouth University style building close to the Museum & Art Gallery) and in borrowing a tent from a fellow student I was obviously being championed by my fellows from Plymouth to go not only AWOL but West.
The train journey down to Plymouth was always exciting with its glimpses of the sea at Dawlish and Teignmouth. Added to this I now experienced the excitement of traveling beyond Plymouth through a landscape that not only seemed to tilt towards the west but also formed a kind of tunnel ferrying me to new adventures. Little did I realize this one particular adventure would stay with me for the rest of my life.
Many students must have taken the same journey, arriving at Penzance station with rucksack and bed-role, making for the youth hostel for at least one night, as I did on this occasion.
I had visited St Ives in the spring of 1971 with a friend Roger Malone. A day-return rail trip from Plymouth. We had taken photographs amongst the fishing boats on the harbour sands and no doubt looked in at the galleries. I could therefore anticipate what I would find in St Ives. Meanwhile in Penzance I could look forward to discovering for myself all the places dotted along the West Penwith coast-path leading out from Newlyn and inviting the walker and sightseer to Lands End and beyond.
In the street in Newlyn I recognized John Wells from photographs and introduced myself to him. He was leaning towards home or studio pushing a bicycle. The brief conversation was decidedly one-sided and an invitation to view his work was not to be forthcoming despite my credentials of having been at Plymouth School of Art under the wing of his old friend Alexander Mackenzie.
Alex¹s work was on show at the nearby Orion Gallery, a joint exhibition with John Wells, and before I left Penzance I was already inspired by what I had seen there and at the Newlyn Gallery. I set forth to explore cliff and cove, keeping diary notes and armed with a newly purchased tube of glue for the making of small collages from found scraps. I had done this on other trips including one to Paris the summer before.
Camping off the footpath above the cliffs was a joy. The weather changed from fine drizzle to blue skies and warm sunshine. I recall walking in off the cliff path to the Minack Theatre (something you can no longer do) in all its cliff-perch glory against blue sea and sky. I lingered there and upon the un trodden sands of the beach below where a lightly dressed woman with her child reminded me of the Karl Weschke paintings I had seen in Plymouth at the Museum and Art Gallery some years before.
The weather had settled into an early summer by the time I reached Sennen. It was so hot the beach was fairly busy with swimmers and sunbathers and as I walked along the beach I felt that the excitement of cliff edge exploration with crayons and paper was somewhat over. I had not anticipated Cape Cornwall.
For me Cape Cornwall made sense of the whole trip. It was a revelation. I stayed and camped in the corner of a cornfield within sound of the sea and with the glory of Cape Cornwall in full view at dawn and dusk. In the morning I watched the sun chase the moon away and it was May. I was reluctant to move on. The whole place excited me as nowhere else had before or has since. The Cape became my genius loci, the jigsaw pieces that completed my experience of Penwith, the question that demanded to be worked out on paper.
At Cape Cornwall I felt half way along the path to my final destination of St Ives but I lingered in the sunshine and felt time slowing down just for me. I made monotypes in an attempt to record the curves of fields and lines of the stone walls, walking hither and hither, and back again. This first trip, an unforgettable experience, was full of incident and suddenly there in the landscape, on the footpath ahead of me, stood Dankoff, Karl Weschke’s dog.
I recognized the shape, the breed, from Weschke’s etchings and paintings, those enticing amalgam of woman and dog, aggressive and bold paintings, like Francis Bacon’s, hinting at the forbidden. What a startling place Cape Cornwall turned out to be. High above me jet planes drew white lines in the blue sky mirroring the lines of the old stone walls below and here on the ground a dog responding to his master’s whistle led me to a Picasso-like Karl Weschke.
Karl was the embodiment of hospitality.
Such was his surprise that I could recognize his dog from his paintings I was
invited into the house without further ado. Coffee was prepared and talk revolved
about painting, art colleges, Bacon and scuba diving. This wonderful man with
Picasso eyes then invited me to join him and his friend Ander Gunn (the younger
brother of the poet Thom Gunn) for an evening at the Tinner’s Arms at
I was taken by car along twisting and ever narrowing roads and later returned in pitch blackness (catching a badger in the headlights) to the place where my tent was pitched out of sight behind a stone wall, though not before being taken to see the light beams of Pendeen lighthouse at midnight. An unforgettable sight, and one more element to add to my first experience of West Penwith.
From Cape Cornwall and its quiet narrow lanes into St Just where I feasted on chicken and chips, I set out finally for St Ives along the footpath that was coloured with wild flowers and often muddied by rainwater or springs. At Botallack I dallied amongst old mine works but didn't settle to draw. I was unaware how close I was to the Hilton residence. Roger Hilton had died in the January. On future trips I made the acquaintance of Rose Hilton and saw Roger’s work in-situ and was granted the audio treat of Roger caught on cassette tape.
I ventured inland at Zennor and sought out Patrick Heron’s house Eagles Nest. Heron was away in London but his wife let me look around the house as Sheila Lanyon would do at Carbis Bay on a future visit to West Cornwall. I remember being intrigued by Heron's small-scale watercolours in the house, which so much echoed the surroundings at Eagles Nest.
I remember making friends with an American couple at Zennor and we took a chance on camping in the corner of a field close to the Tinner’s Arms, our tents alongside each other. This was my last stop before I walked the final part of the coast path to St Ives, that fabulous jewel that is set in such a fabulous and welcoming setting that all-comers are, it seems, continually seduced by her. So many people have I met over the years that have fallen under her spell that I truly believe the magic of St Ives is somehow for everyone and that the town is immensely generous and forgiving for all that.
Amongst its old narrow streets the visitor begins to feel supremely at home. At least this is the effect the town has always had upon me and here once again, having pitched my tent on waste ground high above the town, I found myself walking the back streets, catching the surprise harbour views glimpsed between old fisherman’s cottages, seeking out the Penwith Gallery (no Tate in those days), and buying postcards of Hepworth's Virgin & Child and views painted by Bryan Pearce (there really wasn't anything else at that time).
The January of 1975 had claimed the life of painter Brian Wynter as well as that of Roger Hilton. Barbara Heyworth was to die in a fire at her studio in St Ives just a few weeks after I returned to London. I had admired Hepworth's work for a long time and my father had attempted to gain entry to her studio for me on an earlier visit to St Ives. An embarrassing moment for a thirteen year old!
Back to Central
Once back at the Central School where
I was forgiven my absence due to the wealth of drawings I brought back, I was
sought out by David Haughton who hitherto had had only a cursory contact with
me. He was to champion my work from then on and the material I returned to London
with saw me through the rest of my second year and into my third.
I discovered David was again working on oil paintings derived from drawings he had made in St Just in the 1950s. After a long absence he had revisited St Just in the early 70s.
When I rented a cottage at Kelynack on subsequent trips to St Just David was quick to see the potential in returning to West Penwith with students and set about taking a handful of students down to Kelynack on field trips. Noel Betowski was a member of the first group to visit and for him, like me an Essex man, West Penwith was likewise a revelation. He pursued the figurative response in line with David¹s work whilst I sought the abstract.
When I returned to the Central School three years after graduating in order to take up the vacant fine art technician post, I found David¹s field trips had become an established part of the Central fine art curriculum. As a senior member of the teaching staff he had secured a new respect. In 1979 David enjoyed a deserved retrospective at the Newlyn Orion Gallery.
Re-evaluation of "St Ives"
By now I had become a frequent visitor
to West Penwith and my first one man exhibitions all reflected my interest in
the landscape around St Just. I watched with keen interest a gradually increasing
number of exhibitions and art journal articles devoted to re-evaluating the
so called "St Ives School" which not so many years earlier had been
dismissed as the "now you see it now you don't school". The re-evaluation
culminated in 1985 with David Brown's magnificent St Ives 1939 - 64 at the Tate
Gallery (now Tate Britain).
My own effort towards this re-establishment of credibility was a small London exhibition I organized in 1983 devoted to the works by David Haughton which had survived the fire at his studio in London.
David died from a stroke in 1991. An exhibition planned to mark his demise, as far as I know never materialized. I was at the time living in Nottinghamshire and had stopped visiting West Cornwall. For a while I stopped painting altogether and unfortunately lost contact with Gillie Gilbert at the Wills Lane Gallery, with Alex Mackenzie and Rose Hilton.
David had originally visited West Cornwall at the invitation of his old friend from the Slade Bryan Wynter. Wynter’s abstracts had rarely excited me but as chance should have it I found upon moving from Nottinghamshire to Gloucestershire in 1995 that Wynter¹s brother was living in a farm bungalow across the fields from my house near Tewkesbury. I was taken by a neighbour to meet Eric Wynter who greeted us with a bottle of Teachers and a manner so reminiscent of David Haughton that you could have easily taken Eric for a painter rather than an agricultural man. There I saw a fabulous drawing which must have served as a working’ study for his evocative “Birds Disturbing the Sleep of a Town” (1948).
Return to Penwith
Before the decade was out I found myself
reacquainting myself with West Penwith. The old feelings about the place soon
came back. They had never really gone away. Since 1983 I had treasured a drawing
from 1958 David Haughton presented to me entitled "Carn Bosavern".
Little did I imagine then that one day I might be living in one of the row of
cottages featured in the drawing.
David would be very happy to find I have at last moved to his beloved St Just. A town that he once described to me as, "unusual and perfect in a certain way", and his first visit, "one of those experiences that really do change peoples lives”.
Stephen Prince - March 2007