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The Dark Monarch also relates the story – familiar to students of St Ives art, of how in 1949 the abstract artists split the existing St Ives Society of Artists and founded their own Penwith Society of Artists in Cornwall, which itself, almost immediately became riven by dispute. It is a story of petty, small community politics, albeit one with serious consequences. More unusually, Sven offers us a unique insight into an idea of how the artistic community fitted into a traditional community of the town at a moment of monumental change. He describes a world of traditional masculine labour, of fishermen mending their nets in a cluster of tarred wooden huts soon to make way for municipal improvements and better car parking provision. As the book makes clear, the growth of tourism and post-war political pressures for better planning combined to destroy a way of life (ibid:.4) I would agree with Stefens’s analysis of the socio-economic context up to a point, but would argue also that this is perhaps an oversimplification. Fishing and maritime trades – St Ives’ principle ‘traditional’ industries (alongside mining, quarrying and agriculture) – did not decline only because of tourism and planning pressures, rather decline had been going on for some time already as a result of changes in the availability of fish (especially pilchards), loss of the Mediterranean markets and broader changes in the British and world economy (as I have described in Chapter Three).
“Well, I’m one of them I suppose!” I said, feeling a little worried at John’s attack. I knew he hated the ‘h’artizes’ as he called them. He hated their softness, their effeminacy, their reluctance to help themselves, their lack of sense of responsibility, often their dirtiness and insincerity.
“Aw, now Masser Berlin, my ‘ansom, I don’t mean ‘ee by thart... H’all this ‘ere Island is doomed. They’ll start with little things first, things like you an’ me and Rainbow and the geez. Then they’ll ‘ave the Barkin Houses65 an;’ the Smoke Houses, then they fishermen’s lofts where they belong to mend their nets and make lobster pots, you, until h’all is gone; and the likes a you an’ me, my ansom, banished from the faice of the h’earth’!” (pp.78-79) ‘Barkin Houses’: where pitch tar was made and applied to protect sails and ropes etc from water damage.
To return to contemporary Cornwall, it is these same creeping forces of gentrification, tourism and changes in uses of harbour space that some fishermen at Newlyn fear. A friend witnessed a fishermen walk into a viewing at an art gallery next to the harbour and say with some anger, pointing at the works on show, ‘you call that art? Come down the fish-market with me. I'll show you some real art!’ The undertone of bitterness in this story is understandable within the context of a very real struggle for property and livelihood within many seaside towns and villages.
However it is not a simple case of diametrically opposed ideological or economic positions, practices of memory, or representation. This is richly demonstrated by the works of the self-taught St Ives fishermen-artist Alfred Wallis (Figs. 79-81).
Wallis first went to sea as a boy and sailed on the schooner runs to Newfoundland, before settling in St Ives. He worked on fishing boats as a deck-hand and later in life became a ‘rag and bone man’ selling salvaged marine parts from a horse and cart. In his final years he painted prolifically before ending his days in Madron workhouse. He had a significant influence on the St Ives modern art movement through his encounters with Ben Nicholson (1894-1982) and Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and others, and they likewise influenced his own art. Over time he became known in the art world as ‘the primitive’ and his paintings described as exemplary of a ‘naive’ style. There were doubts as to the truthful extent of his experience at sea. However Robert Jones (a contemporary painter and former fisherman) has shown how ‘Wallis’s paintings were not the result of a childlike imagination but of a profound knowledge and experience’ (Harrison 2001: 8).
Minute and accurate attention is paid to the details of ships rigging, harbours and the marine geography. The perspectives of his paintings are not from the shore looking out like those of the Newlyn School, or from a window like some of Ben or Winifred Nicholson’s 66 works. Rather, ‘his vision was such that in his imagination Wallis was able to rise above the rooftops to show us the buildings of St Ives, and the sea and ships beyond’ (Jones 2001: 12). He painted on old scraps of card and wood, in fact on any surface he could lay his hands on. The rough surfaces of these materials lent the paintings a textured feel evoking the moving and uneven surface of the sea.
Albert Rowe, radar pioneer and university vice-chancellor (1898-1976) has Winifred Nicholson (1883-1981) recounted his experience of meeting Alfred Wallis when a young boy. He complimented Wallis on a fine fish that was depicted in one of his paintings swimming beneath a schooner. Wallis replied conspiratorially, I'll tell 'ee something about them fish... each boat of that fleet - there was over 120 of them when I was a boy and now there's only two or three of them left, and even they got motors aboard - no boat should have a motor! - each boat of that fleet had a soul, a beautiful soul shaped like a fish; so they fish I'm painted there aren't fish at all - you
wouldn't be any good without a soul, would 'ee? (cited by Gale and Ingleby 1999:
Memory was vitally important in Wallis’s work and in the way he expressed his impulse to paint a world he saw vanishing around him. As he wrote in a letter: ‘What I do mosely is what use to Bee out of my own memery what we may never see again as Things are altered all To gether There is nothing what Ever do not look like what it was sence I Can Rember’ (cited by Cross 2008: 219). Both magic and memory became important themes in the work of the St Ives Moderns. Barbara Hepworth for example found the natural and archaeological stone features in West Cornwall resonated with both her earlier life in the Yorkshire Pennines, and a sense of a deeper, more elemental time and human nature. Like many writers and artists in Cornwall, she brought together an association of personal memory with a more enduring memory and past interpreted from the land and sea-scapes. One commentator has said of her work: ‘She's internalising the landscape, she talks about the landscape, being not just what I saw but what I was’ 67.
Cross observes that the largest objects in Wallis’s painting were those features which were most important to him and with which he was most familiar – ‘his house in Back Road West; Norway Square beside which it stood; the encircling harbour of St Ives and the characteristic shapes of Smeaton’s Pier and Godrevy Lighthouse’. In How Modernity Forgets (2009) Connerton seeks to comprehend a preoccupation with memory in the modern era and how this may relate to a peculiar problem with Quoted by BBC Four TV documentary ‘Art of the Sea’, last on 18 August 2011. The Porthmeor studios in St Ives, once homes for fishing families, have for over a hundred years since been used as art studios, although have retained at least some space for fisherman's use. One contemporary artist using the studios describes being able to get away from twenty-first century ‘inanity and babble...
You’re directly engaging in a world which your ancestors knew. You look at the night sky unencumbered by night pollution, you're seeing the same stars, and it's a more direct link with an earlier age. And I suppose I'm trying to bring some of that back’ (ibid).
forgetting. Particularly concerned with place-memory he distinguishes between two types: memorial and locus. Locus memory relates to familiar places, knowledge that is emplaced, the corporeal life of habitual movements. In his view ‘locus’, in its far more inexplicit reference to memory, is the more effective carrier and it is the erosion of the stability of places, of topography, that leads to structural forgetting.
This is in part at least related to the mechanisation of production:
A hand-made world, in which all things were made one by one, was a slow world.
Only when we have thought ourselves imaginatively into such a world can we comprehend the slow process in which, before the nineteenth century, the natural landscape and the urban landscape came into being... In a handmade world the term ‘building’ would apply as much to the memory of the continuing transitive activity of construction as much as to that of the eventual product (30-31).
Connerton’s argument echoes that of Nora (1989) who contrasted habitual vernacular memory and elite institutionalised memory – a distinction we shall revisit in the following chapter on heritage. Suffice to say here that this contrast, conceived less as a dichotomy and more as a relation, frames my concerns with how specific forms of art and craft as livelihood and practice express and shape memory. As the following contemporary examples show these articulate varying degrees of nostalgia and social commentary, more closely tied to a lived experience of place and labour than the more alienated and detached nostalgia of formal traditions of landscape and rural scene representation.
Contemporary Cornish fishermen-artists
Nigel Legge Nigel Legge is a fishermen based at Cadgwith Cove on the Lizard peninsular where his family have lived for many generations (Figs. 82, 83). He sets his nets and pots close to the cove in the broad bay between Lizard Point and Black Head. One May morning after Nigel had set his nets, we sat in his ‘studio’ at Cadgwith cove, where he paints and makes lobster pots by hand in the traditional fashion using willows or, as they are locally known, withies. It’s a cosy, brightly painted shed with a corrugated roof tucked away up a path leading between thatched cottages. He spends his winters in the studio making withy pots as he and his father did many years ago (Figs. 84-89. The studio is made homely with small comforts – including a gas heater, radio and toaster. As we conducted a short interview, several visitors to the cove popped in to collect and pay for some of his pots. Pleasant exchanges
Visitor: Good morning!
Nigel: How we doing? Alright? You survived the breakfast, eh?
Visitor: We did indeed... And we’re just going up to get some pasties off your brother... That’s brilliant [collecting pot] – I’ve left the money with...
Nigel: That’s alright.
Visitor: And I’ll just squeeze this in the boot of the car... and we'll see you soon, alright?
Nigel: Yeah and I’ll do your picture for you. I’ll leave it up there anyway.
Another buyer commented on pots he’d seen for sale outside Lyme Regis Museum – inferior he thought by comparison to Nigel’s and ‘definitely a tourist thing’. Nigel said that he knew the kind he was referring to and explained that they were probably Chinese imports and that they sell for a fraction of the price of his own.
The withies are sourced from a well-established family business that farms the marsh willow on the Somerset Levels. The pots are used for fishing occasionally, when he is doing boat tours for summer visitors and throws in the odd string of pots to demonstrate the technique. Rather, most are sold as ornaments and for use in television and feature films. This diversification of Nigel’s economic activities has been driven at least in part by necessity as he found he was getting too old to haul the hundred and eighty pots he used on average to set. He sees this diversification as part of a tradition which covers have always pursued – combining fishing with working with brass in small foundries, boatbuilding, working on the land, in the quarries; and there was a tradition to go away with the merchant navy in the winter too and send money home to the family. Nigel himself spent six years going around the world with the merchant navy as a young man.
Nigel went on to tell me how he was looking for an apprentice: ‘I'm waiting for a youngster here to come forth and learn how to make these pots, because selling these pots is probably half my living for the year. Especially in a small boat, it’s very handy’. He sells about two hundred per year at £70 for large ones and £27 for the small ones. So far he’d had a bit of interest but only from people who expected to come down and learn it in a day, whereas it took him years. His father was a fisherman and it was from him that he learnt the craft, starting as a youth.
I used to hate every minute of it. I thought thank God we’ve got plastics and steel invented for pots. Then I heaved all this lot in the corner and didn’t bother with it for…since 1965, probably. And then probably twenty years ago, somebody asked me to make one for them for a garden. I didn’t even know where to get withies then, but I did find out and it’s the same family who we dealt with years ago with the old man, and he has a son now; it's not the old man... And I got some withies and made ten pots. The first eight or nine were hopeless but then I got better and better as hadn’t done it for a long time so…. And in those days, there were still a few old fishermen around who could point me in the right direction. Of course, there isn't now.