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Post-war abstraction

After the Second World War, British abstraction found its home in St Ives, Cornwall

Painting by Ben Nicholson depicting coloured shapes based on abstract still life of bottles & glasses against a grey background.

Ben Nicholson, 1946 (still life – cerulean), 1946, Oil on canvas over board, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Kearley Bequest, through The Art Fund, 1989) © Angela Verren Taunt

During the 1940s and 1950s the beating heart of abstract art in Britain centred on a thriving community of artists in St. Ives.

Artists including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Peter Lanyon and many more were inspired by this charming fishing town.

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The Cornish fishing town of St Ives had been a magnet for artists since the extension of the Great Western Railway in 1877. Located on the Cornish coast, the town is almost completely surrounded by beaches. This geographical feature gives the area a special quality of light that has proven to be irresistible to artists.

Ben Nicholson had first visited St Ives during the 1920s with his first wife Winifred. It was here that he and Christopher Wood ‘discovered’ the work of local fisherman Alfred Wallis. They were both delighted and inspired by his naive seascapes.

Nicholson would return to St Ives during the Second World War. This time he arrived with his second wife Barbara Hepworth and the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo. Here their reductive style of abstraction found sympathy with other painters: Peter Lanyon, John Wells and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.

This group became a pivot for younger artists who formed a loose association in Cornwall after the war. The group were often referred to as the St Ives School. This new generation maintained the same dialogue between abstraction and the landscape in their work. They translated the experiences and sensations surrounding them into pure painting or sculpture.

For example, the arrangement of rectangles and semi-circles in Terry Frost’s painting Black and White Movement (1954) derived from the artist’s experience of seeing boats rocking in the harbour. Although drawing inspiration from his surroundings, the composition was guided principally by his response to the expressive qualities of the materials, colour and form. This was an approach that is common to works by William Scott and Patrick Heron.

The harbour and seawall Heron could see from his studio window were the subjects of many of his paintings. He saw abstraction as an international language that transcended the specifics of a single place. He was influenced by the work of the American Abstract Expressionists, particularly Mark Rothko.

In 1954 painters connected to the St. Ives School including Frost, Scott and Roger Hilton were included in Lawrence Alloway’s survey ‘Nine Abstract Artists’. This publication was significant for examining their work within the framework of contemporary theories of perception. It also introduced the abstract sculptures of Victor Pasmore and Robert Adams. Their industrial-looking forms recalled the Constructivist style pioneered by Gabo in the 1930s.

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