arts club history
ST IVES ARTS CLUB – the oldest Arts Club in St Ives
We’re St Ives Arts Club, established in 1890, and in spite of our building being on the edge of the sea and constantly battered by wind and tides, we are still here – 130 years later!
Membership of this Arts Club has been continuous throughout two world wars. The style of dress may have changed over the many years, but the people retain their interest in the arts in all its forms including painting, drawing, sculpting, potting, writing, music and acting.
St Ives has attracted artists since the early 1880s, encouraged by a wealth of spacious studios overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, a kindly population of fishermen and locals, cheap accommodation and a willing community to serve as models, housemaids and landladies.
On the continent artists were painting en plein air (painting outdoors!) and the mild climate of Cornwall as well as the extraordinary quality of the light, encouraged British artists to return to these shores and find their subjects for sea and landscape painting in the beautiful town of St Ives.
The Arrival of the Railway
The rail branch line to St Ives, from the Paddington to Penzance train, arrived in 1877 and changed the face of the town forever. It was a very memorable day when the first train ran. Now artists could travel freely up and down to London and St Ives had become much more accessible.
On Artists Show Day, when the Arts Club and studios were open to the public, schools were closed and extra trains had to be laid on so people in their hundreds could view the different artists’ studio work.
Whole carriages were hired and artists packed their paintings onto them and sent them to the Royal Academy for their summer exhibition. In 1938 St Ives artists (most of whom were members of the Arts Club) had 80 paintings accepted by the Royal Academy, 48 of these were hung on the line – the most prestige’s position for a painting to be viewed.
Formation of the Arts Club
The first foray into forming an artists’ club began in 1888 and meetings took place in Louis Grier’s studio, the Foc’sle on the Wharf overlooking the bay, but this soon became inconvenient when the artist announced that he was working on his masterpiece, The Night Watch, which later won a medal in the Paris Salon.
The present ‘new’ premises were then found above a carpenter’s shop in a distinctive half-timbered building set on the seawall of Westcott’s Quay where it is often drenched in spray and waves in rough weather.
The ground floor was formerly a seine cellar owned by the eccentric Mr. Eathorne, who would sometimes put out an anchor to prevent it being washed away! Access to the upstairs was gained by an outside ladder.
St Ives Arts Club - The Committee Circa 1895
Saturday Night at the Arts Club 1895 The table in the foreground is still in the Club. Left: F. W. Brooke; back Alexander; standing: M.A Jameson. J Bromley; left facing: L Grier, W E Osborn, J H Titcomb, C G Morris, W H Y Titcomb, W Jevon’s legs.
Louis Grier was an active member of the Club for over 30yrs although he never held office on the Committee. The first President was Adrian Stokes who was married to the artist Marianne Stokes. Other founding members include Sir John Arnesby Brown, Sir Leslie Stephen, Adrian Strokes and W Titcomb.
All but one of the original Committee hung at the Royal Academy. Rules were drawn up which are very little different from those of present day.
The objectives of the club were laid out in the constitution, which are still the same today. These were to
“promote, develop and maintain public education and appreciation of the arts in all their aspects by the presentation of public performance, concerts, recitals and poetry, theatre and other events”
Ladies were admitted to this new Club only after protests by lady artists and many of the men whose wives were also artists. However, women were still not allowed to serve on the committee until 1954 when the first woman, Clare White, was elected President.
Back in those early days of 1890 letters were sent to the community inviting them to membership. Mr and Mrs. Stanhope Forbes, the Newlyn artists, accepted and their names appear at the top of the page of the first meeting. Also accepting were Mr and Mrs Stephen, the parents of Virginia Woolf. Talland House, in St Ives, was their summer residence and where Leslie Stephen wrote much of his ‘Dictionary of National Biography’.
Many years later Virginia wrote ‘To the Lighthouse’, based on Godrevy lighthouse, which can be seen from the Club windows.
There were artists in plenty and the Club was soon under way with 60 to 80 members.
However, not everything was as civilized as the Club is today, with its reception room and large entrance hall, its broad staircase with paintings by past members lining the walls.
Upstairs is the main theatre with its stage, audio equipment and lighting, comfortable chairs and exhibition space. In 1891, our founding member the artist, Louis Grier, delicately requested:
‘That a thing to hold a candle should be placed on the writing table –
the beer bottle is of course useful but not decorative.’
A quote from the Westminster Gazette gives an idea of how the town was in these days.
‘The artists are chiefly in evidence in the morning. You may meet them in he narrow ancient street. You may see the men of the painter colony, stalwart figures in tweed suits and knickerbockers and the women (amongst them a Rossetti face crowned by a Tam o’Shanter cap) – you may see them diving into dark archways and up rough wooden steps to their studios, great wooden sheds hung with brown sails or fishing nets instead of tapestry’.
‘Some of these studios are built close to the seashore looking upon the long Atlantic rollers foaming upon yellow sands – a rare opportunity for a sea painter to study wild weather and raging seas comfortably from his own windows’.
‘If you are lucky you may spend an evening at their Club, which meets in a room above a carpenter’s workshop, in a queer, Dutch looking building, black with tar’
Saturday Night at the Arts Club 1895
Entertainment, as well as drawing classes with models, was a feature of Saturday nights and in the Suggestions Book, (still available at the Club, along with Minutes of Meetings) it was requested that the committee procure a piano. They also wanted cushions for the ‘gridiron chairs.’ And ‘a few respectable pen nibs.’ The ladies asked, ‘that a rope be provided for the stairway’ and another comment reads, ‘PS. And at the end of the rope a piano.’!
The tradition of welcoming children means several families of three generations have been Club members. A note in the Minutes of a Meeting from 1934 reads,‘The Leach family won the fancy dress competition for the Loch Ness Monster.’ This is the family of the famous potter, Bernard Leach.
Other well known names in the world of painting, potting, sculpture and writing include George Bradshaw, Alfred Hartley, Jack Titcomb and George Turland Goosey.
In 1937 the young Peter Lanyon, Cornish born artist, then 19 years of age was thanked by the committee for his work in painting the stage back-cloth for a play. Rosamunde Pilcher remembers her mother becoming an honorary member.
Before the big influx of artists, Turner had visited and painted in St Ives in 1811 and again in 1813. In 1883/84, the American artist, Whistler, with his pupil, Walter Sickert, were staying at Barnoon Terrace.. He writes in ironic manner:
‘On fine nights the doors of the studio would be opened and then we had a series of nocturnes that would have merited the artistic appreciation of Mr. Whistler.’
Some things though cannot change; the Arts Club is continually threatened by having the sea at its granite base, at high tide sending its spray over the roof of the building’s wooden clad fascia and crashing down on the lane outside its front door.
In 1952, the Club came dangerously near extinction in its lengthy history of attack from the sea, when HMS Wave was grounded on rocks alongside the Club.
Painting by Borlase Smart
In 1928 the St Ives Arts Club bought the building from their landlord, enabling members to enjoy a permanent home. They now had two floors. The carpenters shop was turned into a library. It developed into one of the best collections of magazines and books on art history in the county, but most items of value were sold off to provide money for building repairs, an on-going problem with a building that has to withstand the battering of the sea.
In later years theatrical costumes, of the Edwardian and Victorian age were also sold, for the same purpose. The Club still has though a collection of historical paintings and artifacts which are currently undergoing conservation.
The early members, with their bigger premises, were now able to hold celebration dinners for those artists whose works were purchased by major galleries or elected members of prestigious art societies, though no ladies were present at these events.
Treve Curnow of St Ives remembers: ‘Father was a master baker and confectioner and we used to do the catering for the Arts Club. On President’s night we provided a running buffet. The things we made were out of this world, game pies, fish pies, vol-au-vent, meringues, iced puddings, French and Genoese pastries, Venetian jellies and creams. They really went to town. The cost was one guinea per head.’
In 1927 and 1947 respectively The St Ives Art Society and the Penwith arts society were established in St Ives. The town flourished as an internationally renowned artist colony with cutting edge development in the arts, particularly painting and sculpture. Adding to the list of prominent artist members the renowned sculptor, Barbara Hepworth, joined the Arts Club in 1956. The Arts Club was part of this development particularly with its contribution to the theatre and the dramatic arts.
Club Members Today - 2020
Today St Ives plays host to an eclectic mix of productions during the September Festival and the Arts Club plays an important role as a venue for many of the internationally renowned visiting speakers with lectures and talks on art related subjects and history.
With events such as Café Frug, a regular evening of poetry and music, the renown World Music Classical concerts and the St Ives Literary Festival, art exhibitions and shows being staged upstairs as they have been for 130 years, the St Ives arts club continues to flourish in the present day and continues the tradition, established at its original conception in the 1890s, of supporting the arts in its many forms.
To ensure the continuation of the Arts Club into the next century it took on charitable status on 12th Dec 1990 exactly 100 years from its foundation and was registered as a Grade II listed building.
The atmosphere, upstairs especially, may have changed in that time and I believe it is a privilege to sit watching a performance or attending a committee meeting, hearing and feeling the waves crashing against the building and the spray coming over the roof, as so many have done before us. And of course the view from the window must be one of the best in St Ives!
Marion Whybrow and Archa Robinson December 2010