Thursday, August 11, 2011

Art and more art - A long weekend in Cornwall

I've had a wonderful long weekend in my home county of Cornwall. I needed a break and it just so happened that an invite to an old schoolfriend's 50th birthday party (I hit the dreaded 5th decade myself today) coincided with me needing to pick my grandchildren up from Devon to babysit while one of my daughters has a well-deserved holiday. I needed little excuse to combine the lot into a five day trip. Saying that - and being me - I decided to turn it into a working holiday by visiting the studios of a couple of artists I've doted on for years. I also planned to visit as many galleries as I could cram in. If there's one thing Cornwall does well, it's producing artists. So, here's how it went ...

Saturday - Having travelled down on the Friday, today was my first full day in the Duchy. I started by visiting Truro as I needed to buy a few supplies and I wanted to have a look at the Lemon Quay area that's been modernised and much improved in recent years. It was bustling with people and what seemed to be a local produce market.

I visited the Lemon Street Gallery, which had sketches by Lucien Freud, small works by Henry Moore and Elizabeth Frink and many others for sale. Ever so slightly out of my price range but lovely to see them much closer than you would in a larger gallery. I then popped into the Lander Gallery in Lemon Street, which has an eclectic mix of the traditional and the modern, all under the watchful eye of a giant floating Elvis made of wire and paper like a Chinese lantern.

If you visit the website you can see the whole of their current catalogue. I liked a great deal of it but was particularly struck by the work of David Stansfield whose stretched ships, London buses and Fab lollipops seemed to jump out of the reclaimed sea-smoothed wood he paints on.

It was nice to also see live art going on in the street with an 'Artist of the week' doing demonstrations while another was encouraging people, especially kids, to have a go. Wonderful.

After leaving Truro, I went on to a birthday party and housewarming for one of my oldest friends, Phil Gendall. Son of Cornish bard and songwriter Richard Gendall, Phil is a talented guitarist - we played in a band together throughout our teens - and an exceptional artist. Upon leaving university he co-founded Gendall Design, arguably the most successful and original graphic design studio in Cornwall. But tonight was all about reminiscing, drinking beer and enjoying a hog roast at his beautiful new home high on the hills above Praze. Oh, and an open mic spot on a makeshift stage. For an evening, we were wannabe rock stars all over again ...

Sunday - Cornwall is a quiet place on a Sunday. Even though tourists cram the lanes and streets with their caravans and 4x4s a lot of places simply won't open. And good for them I say. I spent a good deal of the day spending some time with my family. I was staying with my photographer brother Simon (those of you on Twitter will know him as @kalannstudio) in Camborne but I popped over to Hayle to enjoy the first roast dinner my mum has cooked for me in about 30 years And very nice it was too. We did our usual thing of catching up on all the news - difficult when I don't know anyone she knows and vice versa. I've lived away from Cornwall for 31 years now and Mum has moved house four times in that period. The conversations go something like: 'Oh, Violet's husband died you know.' 'Violet?' 'Yes, you know ... lives in the big house next to Oxter's.' 'What's Oxter's?' 'It's that shop, you know, sells old furniture. Vernon runs it.' 'Vernon who?' etc. Anyway, it was a very pleasant afternoon and evening and a very relaxing day.

Monday - I crammed a lot into today visiting Penzance, Porthleven, Helston and Falmouth. Penzance was first on the agenda as I was keen to catch an exhibition at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum. The gallery houses many original works by the Newlyn School of painters who operated from the 1880s until the turn of the century. They were, to my mind, the closest art colony the UK ever had to the French Impressionists. The Newlyn School was fascinated with the lives of everyday people and obsessed with capturing the quality of outdoor light. It's beautiful stuff and just as the Impressionists captured the highs and lows of Parisien life, so these artists captured the tragedy of fishermen lost at sea as well as the euphoria of a rich catch brought to shore. Among the artists usually on display are people like Stanhope Forbes, Henry Scott Tuke, Lamorna Birch and Norman Garstin. I love them all but my favourite has always been Walter Langley whose muted but highly detailed watercolours and oil paintings keep me staring at them for hours. Penlee House is currently running an exhibition concentrating on Langley's work and has given over 90% of the exhibition space to display the largest collection of his work assembled in decades. It was great!

From Penzance, we (my brother joined me for these daily explorations) headed towards the little harbour village of Porthleven via Marazion and the magnificent St Michael's Mount. As a child growing up in Penzance, I could see the mount and its fairytale castle from my bedroom window and from my school. Of course, back then I took it all for granted.

Soon we were in Porthleven for a meeting with one of my old art teachers, Jim Tinley. I owe much to him, Phil Howells and the late 'Andy' Andrews because they always believed in me despite the fact my work was nearly always 'off-syllabus'. He's now retired, very hairy and wonderfully eccentric, bolstering his teacher's pension by working in a pub and selling the occasional painting. He's a hugely talented oil painter - that's one of his on the wall in the photo below - and has a curious loft space reached by ladder in which he works, taking full advantage of the clear skies and exceptional light.

We spent a good couple of hours just catching up. Like most teachers, he remembers all of his students and recalled incidents involving me, the aformentioned Phil and our other good friend Huw Williams. We also compared notes on which teachers were having affairs with each other. He surprised me with a few but I did likewise. Happy days. It was a shame to leave but there were places yet to visit so, after a cheeky ice cream and a walk around the pretty little harbour to take some photos, it was on to Helston.

Helston was a less successful visit as everyone I hoped to catch was out (Or knew I was coming). However, it's always a nostalgia trip to visit the town as I lived there from the age of 12 until I was 18 and left home. My best years were spent in Helston. It was a bit sad to see that it all looked a little run down. A guess that's the price the town pays for being one of the few large towns in Cornwall with no real tourist attractions except Flora Day every May. We drove on to Falmouth.

When I was a kid, I used to cycle and later ride my moped over to Falmouth because it had the best bookshop in Cornwall. It always seemed to stock the newest and trendiest art books; I bought my copies of Roger Dean's Views and Patrick Woodroffe's Mythopoeikon there (In fact, you'd occasionally meet Woodroffe as he lived near Falmouth - I have a signed copy of one of his books as the result of a chance meeting). Other than that, Falmouth didn't offer me much as a kid. It was a working port and, as such, very rough and ready and business-like. However, in recent years, the harbour has been transformed into a marina and the town is now millionnaire playboy country with big yachts and expensive waterfront apartments a plenty. I was there to meet artist Sophi Beharrell . She owns and works inside a small quay-side studio once owned by one of the Newlyn School artists, Henry Scott Tuke. Her large, bold acrylic seascapes are glorious.

Sophi is one of two artists I was keen to interview for a book project I'm developing. She's someone who, despite having no art school background and being entirely self-taught, has carved out a successful career. In fact, for most of her working life she was a ship's chandler. Her studio doubles a shop for work by other local artists and is enviably positioned next to the harbour. A large picture window looking out over the docks provides her with an inspiring view and excellent light. On this day, it was fun to watch the crew of a small boat feeding a huge bull grey seal. Dolphins are common in the harbour too.

In the distance, there was a large ship moored and, behind it, a big green screen and various movie props and people; the big news around here is that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are in town. They're staying on a superyacht in the marina while Brad films scenes for World War Z. My work in Falmouth done, it was back to my brother's for some excellent local fish and chips.

Tuesday - Today was all about St Ives. First thing on the agenda was a visit to the farm-based studio of artist Seb West. I've been a huge fan of his work for years having spotted it for sale in various galleries. He works in a variety of media but my favourite works are his painted lino cuts. Here he is in his studio and a couple of examples:

While chatting to him, I uncovered a curious network of connections - a real-life Six Degrees of Separation. You see, when I was at school I was taught by several teachers including Jim Tinley who you saw earlier. Jim also taught my classmate Phil whose party I went to on Saturday. Apart from running a successful business, Phil was also a lecturer at Falmouth College of Art and one of his students was ... Seb West. Small world eh? After a very pleasant hour or so with Seb, we headed down into St Ives itself. The 1000 space car park is high up on a hill above the town and affords a wonderful view on the walk down.

St Ives has always been a jewel in Cornwall's tourism crown and it's always busy. That said, I have never seen it as busy as it was today. The visitors crammed every street and every downalong with their sore lobster-red bodies and I doubt you could have slid a fag paper between the scarlet masses on the beaches.

I think we visited just about every gallery in the town ... and St Ives has a gallery every other shop. Worthy of mention are the Imagianation Gallery, which sells Seb West's prints and also has work by Jon Tremaine whose extraordinarily detailed pen drawings feature animals made from other animals and natural forms. I also enjoyed the Whistlefish Gallery, which specialises in cards and prints. In particular I loved the humour of Gerry Plumb whose paintings of chubby men surfing tickled me immensely. The Porthminster Gallery was very nice too, as were the Brooks Smith Gallery, the Waterside and Westcotts Galleries and the St Ives Society of Artists. And yes, the St Ives seagulls are as predatory and opportunist as ever ... as several tourists discovered to their cost.

Wednesday - Today was home day but, as I was setting off after lunch, I had time to visit the farm owned by my brother's partner's family. It's built high on a hill near Beacon in the heart of the now defunct Camborne tin mining area. It stands beside Carn Brea, the highest point in West Cornwall. The farm stables quite a lot of horses but also takes in waifs and stray animals and, because of this, has one mad sheep, an agoraphobic Nubian goat, lots of chickens, chinchillas, ferrets, cats and dogs and a trio of cows. Among them is quite possibly the largest cow I've ever seen.

Simon introduced me to the latest resident, a young Fresian horse that will grow up to be one of those scary bastards beloved of dark riders in The Lord of the Rings style adventures. He also gave a ride to two of his step-daughters in an old dog cart. Great fun. The dogs also had fun with us throwing balls for them. One Springer Spaniel called Hamlet achieves extraordinary heights when jumping to catch.

Most of these photos were taken by me but some were taken by my brother ... including this amazing shot he took a few weeks ago. He was watching the kids playing on the trampoline and trying to catch them mid-air when the farm's sole sheep wandered into shot ... and smiled! I swear to you, there's no Photoshop work here.

Could there have been a better way to end this blogpost?

A truly excellent long weekend. My artistic batteries are refreshed, revived and inspired. Expect some interesting new stuff very soon.


She Means Well... said...

Happy Birthday, that man!

(And thanks you for making all misty-eyed and nostalgic for the Cornish summer hols of my childhood)

Nommie said...

Fond memories of St Ives from my art student days - That fantastic light and colour of the area! Great to hear the artistic batteries are recharged! :-)

Frank Zweegers said...

Looks really good!