Post-war Modern Art’s Roots in St. Ives

The Post-war Modern art movement began in the UK during the mid-20th Century, pioneered by a plethora of artists that found their inspiration in St. Ives. The St. Ives School became the hub of British modernism that was at its peak between 1945 to 1960, with many emerging artists still resonating with the location today. Following WWII, the rising reputation of the current St. Ives painters and sculptors began attracting a generation of younger artists, including Patrick Heron, Paul Feiler and Terry Frost.

At the start of the Second World War in 1939, Ben Nicholson and his then-wife, the sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth, both by that point established abstract artists, settled close to St Ives. The Russian constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo soon joined them there, thus beginning the early stages of St. Ives becoming a hub for contemporary and abstract advances in British art following the war. After the Second World War, those that were already established in West Cornwall began to garner more success, attracting a younger generation of artists to the area.

The Post-war modernists and the younger painters who would be heavily affected by the American abstract expressionists were on either side of the group of artists, which Patrick Heron referred to as the “middle generation.” Several years following this middle generation’s return from the war, original and impactful pieces of art started to appear.

The term ‘St Ives School’ is the title given to a group of younger painters who settled in St Ives around 1950, together with Hepworth and Nicholson. The St. Ives artists were influenced by the West Cornwall countryside and used its shapes, forms, and colours as a source for much of their work in addition to their mutual interest in abstraction. The main figures of the St. Ives School include Bernard Leach, the first contemporary potter, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Paul Feiler, Sir Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Karl Weschke, and Bryan Wynter. British Avant Garde saw massive developments during this period, although was eventually overtaken by Pop-art in the 1960s. Abstraction persisted into the 21st Century, despite not being at the same scale as it was during the provenance of the St Ives School.

The deaths of Wynter, Hilton, and Hepworth, of which the latter tragically perished in a fire at her workshop in May 1975, are often seen as marking the end of the “St Ives School” era. These three prominent painters were among the colonies best-known. In opposition to the St. Ives painters’ dedication to nature and abstraction, critics at the time saw abstraction as a form weakened by allusions to nature.

St. Ives continues to attract creatives to its location, continuing to be home to a large artistic population, as well at its cobblestone streets still alive with renowned galleries showing a wide variety of traditional and contemporary artwork, craft workshops, and active artist studios.

The movement of British Modern art was a major period during the mid-20th Century, expanding outside of St Ives as key artists helped to evolve these artistic styles. Many of these artists have achieved established or even blue-chip recognition, including many we have at the Farhi Fine Art gallery.

If you’re interested in finding out more about some of the artists involved in this important era, contact us through our website.