Connecting with St Ives

Have you ever met a Zorse? That’s a cross between a zebra and a horse. Probably not… But I have met the lady who invented them (above)! And, by quirky chance, she’s one link between Ireland and the group of artists who formed the ‘St Ives School of Painting’, Cornwall, in the twentieth century. You already know from last week’s post that the forthcoming exhibition in Uillinn, Skibbereen – West meets West, opening on 3 June, celebrates the historic connections and similarities between these two western outposts of Britain and Ireland, explored through the medium of art.

I was pleased to find this poster (produced for the London, Scottish and Midland Railway Company) by Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an artist who was born in Ireland but spent most of his long working life in Newlyn, Cornwall

It was the coming of railways from the capital to Cornwall (arriving to Penzance in 1860, and to St Ives in 1877) that opened up the far south-west of Britain to tourists – and to the artists who were drawn to this hitherto remote and unspoiled ‘rural idyll’. They were particularly attracted to the picturesque fishing villages, and rather overlooked the equally interesting and visually dramatic mining communities which were the centre of the county’s economy in the latter years of the nineteenth century.

The picturesque St Ives fishing community as seen in these postcards which served the burgeoning tourist industry in the early 1900s

The first art gallery in St Ives opened in 1887, and an art school was opened the following year. By the time the photographs on the postcards above were taken, there were ten private schools of painting in the town. The development of St Ives as a national (perhaps even international) centre for ‘modern art’ began after the Great War when Ben Nicholson and Christopher (Kit) Wood visited and ‘discovered’ the seafarer and naïve artist Alfred Wallis, who spent his retirement years painting nautical scenes on old fish boxes, driftwood and even scraps of cardboard.  They found his small cottage (now marked by a plaque) filled with these images, many of them (to the artists’ horror) attached to the walls by nails driven through their centres.

Art in St Ives, Cornwall: upper left – Christopher Wood self portrait; upper right – Alfred Wallis The Blue Ship; lower – Ben Nicholson Mural for the Festival of Britain

As the century progressed and another European war loomed, remote St Ives became home to many artists – some conscientious objectors, others just escapists. It made for a cosmopolitan mix. Ceramicists Bernard Leach and Hamada Shoji arrived from Japan in the 1920s. Many potters from all over the world were apprenticed at the Leach Pottery (which exists today in St Ives and is also now a museum), and spread Leach’s style and beliefs. At the outbreak of war in 1939 Nicholson (then the centre of the London based British avant-garde movement) returned with his wife, sculptor Barbara Hepworth, followed by their friend Russian Constructivist pioneer Naum Gabo and his wife Miriam. To quote the history pages of the St Ives Society of Artists:

…Soon Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, eastern philosophy, true naïveté and the English marine tradition were being discussed behind the blackout curtains of the town. The place was a hotbed of creativity and its importance grew…

Post-war, the artists’ community expanded, and changed. The names we now remember from the mid-century years include Sven Berlin, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, John Wells, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and many others. A good insight of what life was like there is given in the entertaining autobiographical notes of Irish artist Breon O’Casey, son of playwright Sean O’Casey:

…One day, watching television, sometime in the late fifties, I saw a film about Alfred Wallis, a primitive painter who had lived at St Ives in Cornwall. The film showed St Ives and the studios of some of the artists living there. I realised it was the place for me… Ah St Ives! In those days still a working fishing port, with tourism and art only tolerated, but kindly tolerated. The relief of mingling with other crazy artists was enormous. It was literally as if a great weight was lifted from my shoulders. This is exactly how it felt. One must remember the strong antagonism to modern art then, and the nervous energy used up resisting it… One was with a group of people who were hoping to make a living from their art and indeed some were professional artists. That times were hard mattered little. If no one has much money it doesn’t matter. And I certainly never experienced the depths of poverty and the necessary determination to survive it, that my father had experienced. Nor indeed did I face the privations that, as one reads, Matisse faced, never mind those suffered by the true early warriors, Van Gogh and Gauguin… My studio was in a ramshackle, wooden structure tucked in behind other similar studios facing out over Porthmeor beach to the wide Atlantic. I slept in a curtained off alcove at one end – illegally – and in the winter the thud of the great waves would shake the whole crazy structure like a dog shaking a rat. It was kept standing by the law of inertia which says: if an object has been in one place for a number of years, it will resist, of itself, natural physical forces trying to move it…

Breon O’Casey in 2009: he died in Cornwall in 2011. Right – O’Casey’s Trio

Peter Lanyon was one of the most influential artists in the St Ives School during his working life. He was a native of the town – born in The Red House, Bellyars, St Ives in 1918. Both his parents came from families who were connected with mining. Lanyon was a teacher and an artist. Irish artist Tony O’Malley (1913 – 2003) received his only formal art education from Peter Lanyon and, after Lanyon’s death in 1964, O’Malley dedicated all his work to his friend and mentor. Irish sculptor Conor Fallon (1939 – 2007), a friend of O’Malley and O’Casey, was also inspired by Peter Lanyon’s work and spent some years in St Ives before moving back to Kinsale. Lanyon claimed that he sought in his work to ‘get under the skin’ of his native county and explored it by going underground in the mines and flying over it in a glider. Lanyon died as a result of a gliding accident; the work of one of his sons – the late Matthew Lanyon – will feature in the West meets West exhibition in June this year.

Top: Bojewyan Farms by Peter Lanyon (courtesy Sheila Lanyon). Lower: Lanyon, left, in 1961 – photo by Ida Kar; Irish artists Tony O’Malley (centre) and Conor Fallon (right)

This post is a necessarily brief historical summary of the St Ives artists and their influences on the annals of art in the islands of Britain and Ireland. Many important names have been omitted. But we cannot leave the subject without mentioning Sven Berlin – and coming back to the Zorse!

‘The Dark Monarch’ – a fictionalised novel by Sven Berlin that characterised and defamed many of his fellow artists in the St Ives colony – they drummed him out of town! Right – Juanita Casey, Berlin’s second wife (photo Dolmen Press)

Sven Berlin (1911 – 1999) was a colourful and controversial addition to the St Ives group. Born in London, he came to Cornwall in 1938, meeting with Nicholson and Hepworth and writing the first book on the life of naïve artist Alfred Wallis. While there he met Juanita (1925 – 2012), who was named by her uncle after his favourite circus lion. Her mother, an Irish Traveller, had died in childbirth and her father, an English Romany, had given her up for adoption. She joined a circus at the age of 13, beginning a lifelong obsession with horses. She was a writer, artist and poet and – later – a horse breeder and circus trainer. She spent some years working on boats in Penzance and exhibiting paintings in the Newlyn Gallery, and there she became involved with Sven Berlin; they married in 1953. Soon after, Sven was ostracised from St Ives and they travelled in their Romany caravan to the New Forest and lived for a while in the Shave Green Gypsy community.

Sven Berlin in St Ives, left, and with Juanita and their family in their Gypsy wagon

The marriage broke up when Juanita met and eloped with a groom, Fergus Casey. While with him she trained and rode zebras and embarked on her project to produce the Zorse – apparently unsuccessful.  Her lifestyle was forever Bohemian. Her obituary in the Independent newspaper observes:

…Casey wrote that her children looked upon her “the way steam enthusiasts admire a hissing antique boiler.” Often, she would be the first to admit, her creativity and spontaneity took over from her domestic duties and responsibilities…

Fergus, a journalist, was drowned in Galway and Juanita, with her daughter, Sheba, continued to travel – firstly to Sneem in Co Kerry, and then to Okehampton in Devon, England where she once again joined the circus, as a horsemaster. I met her in Okehampton when she was in her eighties, and was fascinated to listen to many of her incredible stories – although while telling them she was always keeping half an eye on her television set in the corner, which was always on and always tuned in to the horse racing channels!

Below, Juanita Casey, living in Okehampton, Devon, in her eighties and an illustration from her novel  The Selene Horse

Don’t forget! West meets West – the work of contemporary Cornish artists, at Uillinn, Skibbereen, from 3 June to 8 July

Pilchards and Palaces

Black Castle, Leamcon

Black Castle, Leamcon – also known as ‘The Hound’s Leap’ – William Hull territory

A little while ago I described an outing we undertook exploring some of the archaeological sites on the Mizen Peninsula. We were out again a few days ago checking on some monuments off to the west of us. I had researched the Archaeological Survey Database, and determined to have a look at the ‘Fish Palace’ located in the townland of Leenane, close to Crookhaven – evidently a substantial establishment set up by Sir William Hull and his business partner, Sir Richard Boyle, first Earl of Cork, in 1616.

Leenane Fish Palace in 2015

Leenane Fish Palace in 2015

Hull was a notorious character – his family home was Larkbeare, near Exeter in Devon. He had been appointed Deputy Vice Admiral of Munster in 1609 under James I, and settled in Leamcon near Black Castle or ‘The Hound’s Leap’, one of the O’Mahony castles built along the coast of Roaringwater Bay. Set on a promontory into Toormore Bay, Leamcon  is one of the most defensible of these, only being reached by crossing a narrow bridge. Hull’s job was ostensibly to protect the southern Irish coastline against piracy. In fact, the post seemed to encourage collaboration with the pirates, where it would financially benefit both the Admiralty and Hull himself.

You probably want to know what a ‘Fish Palace’ is? I had seen the term on Irish Ordnance Survey maps, and had established that it is a class of monument in the Archaeological Inventory of County Cork 1992, where it is well described:

‘…Fish palaces: The fishing and curing (smoking, pickling and pressing) of pilchards (Sardinia pilchardis) became an important industry in West Cork during the 17th century. This industry suffered from the erratic pattern of pilchard shoals (some years none would appear in Irish waters) and was in serious decline by the middle of the 18th century. Today, all that remains are the ruins of curing stations, called “pallices” along the coast. The word “palace” is of uncertain derivation, but probably originated in the SW of England where it meant a cellar used for storing fish. Usually the “press wall” is the only standing structure, with its horizontal line of lintelled support niches. These held one end of a press beam; at the other end a heavy weight was suspended and in the middle was a wooden press or “buckler”. The buckler was placed over an open barrel of pilchards and the downward force of the press beam pressed the pilchards into the barrel. Also fish or “train” oil was squeezed out through a drain in the base of the barrel; this was valuable as a luminant and was used by the tanning industry…’

All this has been ringing bells with me: firstly, because I know from the map that a Fish Palace once existed down below Nead an Iolair – overlooking Rossbrin Cove and Castle – but no trace is left now, except that the field there is still known as ‘The Palliashes’; but secondly because when I lived in Newlyn in Cornwall I looked out over Mounts Bay, where a pilchard fishery had been active since the 16th century. This was a huge business, whose heyday was the middle of the 19th century. Pilchard quantities are measured in ‘hogsheads’ – one hogshead holding 3,000 fish: in 1847 the exports of pilchards from Cornwall amounted to 40,883 hogsheads or 122 million fish! By good fortune we have a pictorial record of the activities, as two of the Newlyn School of Artists chose seining as the subject matter for two impressive paintings.

'Pilchards' - Charles Napier Hemy 1897 (Tate Gallery)

‘Pilchards’ – Charles Napier Hemy 1897 (Tate Gallery)

'Tucking Pilchards' Percy Craft 1897 - Penlee Gallery

‘Tucking Pilchards’ Percy Craft 1897 (Penlee Gallery)

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In the good times Mounts Bay was brimming with seine boats. The pilchards were harvested during the summer when the shoals swam in close to the shore. Lookouts known as Huers were posted on the cliffs, from where the shoals could be seen and semaphore signals were sent out to the waiting boats who let out 400 yard long nets to surround and trap them. The nets were kept upright by floats at the surface and weights at the bottom, presenting an impenetrable wall to the pilchards. The pilchards were then removed by smaller tuck nets and loaded into punts and carried ashore. The seine net provided a convenient keep net in which the fish could be kept alive and fresh until they were processed.

Early photographs of seining, and the fishing fleets working out of Penzanace and Newlyn, Cornwall

During my time in Newlyn there was an active pilchard processing plant – now closed down – but I was fortunate enough to visit the works and see the pressing and preserving taking place, using exactly the same methods that William Hull’s workers employed four centuries before. Just as in those earlier times the main markets for the processed fish were in France and Spain.

Pressed Pilchards (Richard Greenwood)

Pressed Pilchards (Richard Greenwood)

As in Ireland, the pilchard shoals severely declined – probably because of overfishing – and the industry followed. Nowadays there is a small amount of pilchard fishing taking place in Cornwall, but it is barely viable.

Mousehole, Mounts Bay - Ernest Watson

Mousehole, Mounts Bay – Ernest Watson

To the casual observer, our little expedition to the Crookhaven Fish Palace might have seemed pointless – a lot of scrambling through bracken and brambles to find a few old stone walls and the crumbling remains of an abandoned quay. Through our eyes, however, we saw the industry and energy of former days: Irish men and women labouring long and hard to put clothes on the back of a Knight and an Earl…

canned pilchards