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Book Review: St Ives - The Art and the Artists by Chris Stephens

A couple of weeks before the shutters came down, I attended a talk at Tate St Ives given by the former Tate Britain Curator of Modern British Art, Chris Stephens. He had recently written a book on the artistic entity – not really a movement or a school as such - with which St Ives is associated, and which held such a significant place in the development of abstract art in the post-war years. I enjoyed the talk, which was given in the lovely light lecture theatre that sits at the top of the building, and I liked the look of the book. I am normally culpably parsimonious on these occasions, but it was my birthday that weekend, and I bought a copy on my way out.

This blogpost is by way of a review, but first, a caveat. Although I enjoy looking at modern art, and have been to Tate St Ives a few times over the years, I am far from being knowledgeable either about the subject in general, or about the work produced in and around the town during the decades following the second world war. Prior to reading the book, I couldn’t tell a Lanyon from a Heron. But I reason that many others are in this position, and therefore evaluating a work such as this from a relatively naive perspective is a valid and worthwhile exercise. Those who are better informed may nod wisely, or shake their heads despairingly at times, but hopefully some readers at least will feel better placed to make a decision as to whether Mr Stephens’ book might be for them.

The first thing to say is that the volume itself, as an artefact, is rather lovely. The covers are weighty and the paper has an expensive feel to it; there is evidence of considered design in the formatting and fonts, and little touches such as centring the chapter titles at the bottom of each page, and setting the page numbers half way up the outside margins, help one to feel that one has invested in something a little special. In fact this latter detail took some getting used to - I kept thinking a scholarly spider or midge had settled on the edge of the page. The duck-egg cover with its single Ben Nicholson abstract contrasts pleasingly with the muted gold of the first, thick, creamy pages. In a purely tactile respect the book is a pleasure to open and hold.

It is divided into eight or nine sections, most of which deal in chronological order with a period in the unfolding story of ‘St Ives’ (Stephens uses quotation marks to distinguish the artistic phenomenon from the town), while one or two chapters take a more thematic approach. In a nice touch, the chronology is broken in the penultimate chapter, which jumps forward to the establishment of the Tate St Ives gallery in the nineties, before moving back a couple of decades to deal with the poignant demise of various of the key figures in the movement. If there is a unifying theme in the work it is the role of landscape, though this in itself is not a straightforward proposition. The text is generously interspersed with examples of the art, almost all in full colour, some given a whole page or indeed a double spread; this is both a book that one reads for enlightenment, and a kind of catalogue to which one may turn for pleasure.

The prose style is scholarly and often elegant. It is perhaps a little dry in places, but there is a strong sense that this comes from a desire to be precise, to do the artists and the art justice, while recognising the frailties of the former and the difficulties posed by the latter. The scholarship itself is lightly worn and wide-ranging. Stephens’ tone is respectful but not overly reverent – from the start he seems anxious not to claim too much for his subject, while according it its proper place and value in the story of twentieth century western art. He fleshes out the artists, their rivalries and love affairs without being overly gossipy, and the more outrageous anecdotes are related in the same dry, economical manner. There is compassion evident, too, for the often traumatic and tragic backstories of a group of men and women who were profoundly affected both by the war and by the apocalyptic vistas that the post-war period presented.

Abstract art is not easy to discuss, and this is a critical study. There are occasional passages where the language seems not to convey anything very rooted in what one might call normal discourse. This is balanced however by a welcome focus on the physical description of the artworks – not only the two-dimensional spatial relationships of shape and colour, but the depth and texture of the various media, and the techniques by which these have been achieved. One has a strong sense of physical works of art.

I have been reading the book in lockdown, half an hour a day after lunch, and it has been a pleasant companion. It is one of the more expensive books I have purchased, but it feels worth every penny, and it has left me itching to revisit the town of the title, and its gallery, to see some of the paintings and sculptures anew. Presumably the author would regard that as a result.

St Ives – the Art and the Artists by Chris Stephens

Tate/Pavilion Books £26 ISBN 978-1-911624-32-5

Available from the gallery shop at Tate St Ives, Covid-19 restrictions permitting.

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