The art of women
- Credit: Courtesy Estate of Gillian Ayres and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London.
Often overlooked and under-appreciated compared to their male colleagues, female artists are increasingly finding themselves in the spotlight and on gallery walls- and Cornwall is no exception
Cornwall is rightly renowned for its art colonies and the many talented artists who incubated and inhabited them. One of the unique features of the Cornwall art scene over the last hundred years or so, is the impact of female artists, not only on the art of Cornwall, but also their influence on the UK art scene and beyond.
The most obvious starting point on this journey is the titan of the group: Dame Barbara Hepworth. While she may have been a Yorkshire lass by birth, it was Cornwall and specifically St Ives, which really captured this art world luminary’s heart.
There is now a sculpture park dedicated to her in her home county, but it is the Barbara Hepworth studio and garden in St Ives which is the essential Hepworth experience. It was, after all, here where she worked, lived and died tragically in 1975. It is also within the great Celtic lands of Cornwall and especially Penwith that holds the key to her aesthetic genius.
Hepworth is an undeniable giant of 20th century European sculpture. For anyone interested in this medium, who is within the radius of the UK, a pilgrimage to St Ives is paramount.
Within the Hepworth studio you can observe what a brilliant draughtsperson this artist was. All art begins with drawing. It is a thinking, visual medium, which is very underrated in comparison with numeracy and literary skills. Held within the confines of the studio and the garden is the evidence of Hepworth’s unique talents as an innovative, modernist artist and also as a skilled craftsperson.
Gillian Ayres was another great female, abstract artist, not originally from the county, but who resided in Morwenstow from 1987 until her death in 2018. Ayres was a painter and printmaker whose use of colour, form and texture was unparalleled. Her work is an absolute joy to behold and greatly underrated. Tate St Ives produced a bumper retrospective of Patrick Heron glorious art in 2018 and I would dearly love to see the same consideration given to Gillian Ayres’ long and distinguished career. There are few greater pleasures afforded to us in life than viewing the celebratory works of a master colourist at Tate St Ives, surrounded by all that lovely sea, sand and surf, all set within a turquoise/azure panorama.
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From one end of the county back down to the other, we discover the magnificent Wilhelmina Barnes-Graham. Again, while Barnes-Graham was a native of St Andrews in Scotland she spent much of her adult life in St Ives. As in common with Gillian Ayres she lived a long life, dying in 2004 at the age of 91. Her art work changed greatly over her career, beginning as a realist painter before morphing into a marvellous abstract artist. However, a deep engagement with geometry travels through her entire oeuvre and it was her abiding love of and interaction with nature, especially that of Cornwall, that was the real motivating and guiding force of her art.
A key member of the Newlyn School was Dame Laura Knight, who later became synonymous with her patriotic artworks set during World War II and a monumental painting displaying Nazis on trial at Nuremburg. Her greatest legacy though may well reside in a painting completed in her studio in Lamorna, Self Portrait with Nude, was originally exhibited at the Passmore Edwards Art Gallery in 1913. The painting is now in the ownership of the National Portrait Gallery. A controversial painting of its time, the image captures a painting within a painting, of the artist capturing on canvass, her female nude model. Within her entire works, it is Knight’s mastery of paint, composition, drawing skills and empathy for her subjects which penetrate the most forcefully.
The artist Rose Hilton could easily have allowed her art to be overshadowed by her famous artist husband - Roger Hilton, who died in 1975. However, Rose Hilton, herself an award-winning graduate of The Royal College of Art, forged ahead, after his death, with her own art practice, receiving a selected retrospective of her work at Tate St Ives in 2008.
Hilton, a wonderful colourist was inspired by art world luminaries like Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard, and, of course, her late husband.
Rose Hilton though, was no limited copyist, her work has its own essential esprit de joie. Her paintings, filled with wondrous pastels and deep primes, bring with them a timeless presence.
The Newlyn School was also home to many other female painters, among them Elizabeth Stanhope and Newlyn-born artist Mary Jewels, Cornwall can also claim some credit for Turner Prize-nominee Tacita Dean, who studied at Falmouth School of Art and Vanessa Bell – older sister of modernist writer Virginia Woolf – passed her childhood in St Ives. Their father Leslie Stephen helped form the St Ives Art Club which still exists today. Bell was a member of the famed Bloomsbury group and known for her design work – which included covers for her sister’s famed novels inspired by St Ives.
While all of these female artists are highly regarded and have pieces of their art in major collections, there is still a discrepancy with their male counterparts. I suspect though, in the fullness of time and with an ongoing project of gender reassessment in the arts, it will be asserted that these brilliant female artists are truly worthy of our upmost attention and academic scrutiny.