Three Artists in a St. Ives B&B
A couple of years ago, heading into town from our rented crows nest apartment high above St Ives, we came across a house called ‘Whistler’s View’, a rather smart Boutique B & B with a plaque on the wall celebrating the three artist friends who lodged there in 1884.
The house is one of many hundreds built during the 1870s and 1880s to not only accommodate workers and their families involved in local industries, but also the many colonial retirees, who had bought many of the houses, often used as boarding houses for the increasing number of tourists (which included amateur and professional artists) who had started visiting the town.
When James McNeill Whistler, Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes arranged for their luggage and easels to be taken up the stairs to the first floor rooms with the best views, the house would have been less than five years old.
In fact the building activity in St Ives over the last couple of hundred years can be clearly identified — like rock strata — as you descend from the north-western edge downward to the old town and the harbour.
And it’s not hard to imagine the amount of building activity that must have confronted the three artists on their arrival. But they didn’t (as far as I know) draw or paint any of that activity, even though they were lodging in a prime example of it. No, they looked out to the sea, and the much older part of the town below them for their inspiration in those early weeks of 1884.
Whistler was not only a friend of Sickert and Menpes, but their mentor. He had a vested interest in them, and they were the sort of men who wanted to succeed; they were also very good, as Menpes’s drawing of Whistler (above) shows.
Whistler and his hugely talented friends were partly responsible for the creation of St Ives as an artists colony, with the flamboyant Whistler (Oscar Wilde modelled himself on Whistler the dandy)turning heads wherever he went.
The three artist were also working at one of the most febrile artistic and literary periods in history, with words and ideas passing like lightning, with many French Impressionists travelling to Britain to paint.
It must have been an exiting time for artists to be alive, and the three who stayed in that tall Victorian house overlooking the old town were no exception, leaving an indelible impression on the art world, and on us.
In his 1959 book, Britain’s Art Colony by the Sea, Denys Val Baker writes:
“ It is a curious truth that with the solitary exception of John Opie, R.A., [Opie was a Cornish painter of the late 18th and early 19th century, who painted several members of the Royal Family] the past history of art in Cornwall is bereft of Cornish names. But otherwise, almost every famous British painter, from Turner to Whistler [who was American of course], Sickert to Augustus John, Alfred Munnings to Ben Nicholson, has come to Cornwall to paint.”
Denys Val Baker goes on to ask what brought those artists (and still does) to St. Ives:
“ The explanation is not a simple one. It is a mixture of material and mystical, facts and fantasies, all equally important. The climate, the brilliant, the almost Mediterranean blue of the sea, the fascinating formations of rocks and cliffs, hills and valleys, sand and pebble shores — these are some of the more obvious attractions. So, too, is the comparative freedom and easiness of life in a small but cosmopolitan town such as St.Ives.”
So how did Whistler, Sickert and Menpes hear about St. Ives?
The chances are it would have been the early literary travels of Charles Dickens, and later, in 1870, Thomas Hardy’s architectural working trips into Cornwall, and the studio talk of another artist, J.M.W. Turner, that may have sparked the likes of Whistler and his chums, to check out the light, for it would be another decade after Whistler, before the so called Newlyn School was established. Of course, by the time Whistler and his friends came down to St. Ives it was already become something of a resort (the railway had opened in 1877) for wealthy London families staying for the summer. The Stephens family was such a family who, in the 1890s stayed at Talland House. Their youngest daughter Virginia (Woolf) was greatly inspired by the place. The maritime rag-and-bone-man Alfred Wallis (who later turned into an artist) was also inspired by all he saw, absorbing it all for later use. There can be little doubt that he would have noticed the three artists (their dress sense was, to say the least, often flamboyant) holding court in the Sloop Inn.
I believe it was that short visit of Whistler, Sickert, and Menpes that established St. Ives as an art colony by the sea.