What Was the St Ives School?

The St Ives School was a radical British art movement that emerged out of the small coastal town of St Ives, spanning the 1940s to the 1960s.

Apr 21, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

painting artists members st ives school


The St Ives School is a postwar British art movement of the mid-20th century, named after the fishing village of St Ives in Cornwall. Many artists congregated here during and after World War II to escape the war-time bombings of larger cities, and fell in love with the area’s rugged, un-spoilt coastlines, vivid colors and natural phenomena. As such, it became an important mecca where significant breakthroughs in abstraction were made throughout the 1940s to the 1960s. Artists in the St Ives School include Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Alfred Wallis, Naum Gabo, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Sir Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, Bryan Wynter, Patrick Heron, Paul Feiler and Bernard Leach. 


Artists Congregated in St Ives During World War II

alfred wallis st ives school art
Alfred Wallis’ painting The Blue Ship, 1934, depicting the harbor of St Ives in Cornwall


As early as 1928, the renowned British artist Ben Nicholson had made a visit to St Ives with his friend, the artist Christopher Wood. While there, they admired the bold simplicity of local painter Alfred Wallis’s art, and were entranced by the area’s natural coastlines. Meanwhile the renowned potter Bernard Leach had already established a studio in St Ives during the 1920s. All this meant that before the war St Ives had already become a popular site for creative voices.


ben nicholson st ives
Ben Nicholson, 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall), 1943–5, via Tate Gallery, London


In 1939, at the outbreak of war, Nicholson and his wife, the highly respected British sculptor Barbara Hepworth both moved to St Ives from London to escape London’s air raids. Here they found a suitable retreat from the industrial grit of London, and the wonder of the Cornish scenery made its way into their art. Other artists who joined them included the Russian constructivist Naum Gabo, Margaret Mellis and Adrian Stokes.


Many St Ives School Artists Merged Landscape with Abstraction

barbara hepworth oval form plaster
Barbara Hepworth at work on the plaster for Oval Form, 1963, via Art Fund, London

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While living in London before the outbreak of war, both Hepworth and Nicholson had visited Europe and picked up on the latest trends for bold, geometric abstraction through artists including Piet Mondrian, Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso. They brought these radical ideas to St Ives. Eventually, as the St Ives community of artists grew, a distinct brand of abstraction emerged from the artists who were living and working here, one that merged the latest European abstraction with references to the land, sea, sky and other natural phenomena of Cornwall.


terry frost walking down quays painting
Sir Terry Frost, Walking Down the Quays, St Ives, 1954


The art critic and curator David Lewis later recalled, “…the landscape was the common factor for all of us, a presence of perpetual power which in its transitoriness reminds us of our own.” We see this clearly in the smooth sculptural forms of Barbara Hepworth, who referenced the curvature of cliffs and caves, as well as the smooth, careworn patina of rocks and shells she would gather while combing the beaches every day. 


There Were Two Generations of St Ives School Artists

wilhelmina barns-graham artist cornwall
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Island Sheds, St Ives No. 1, 1940, via Tate Gallery, London


The St Ives School is often divided roughly into two distinct phases – the early school led by Nicholson and Hepworth, followed by a later generation of artists who settled here and took inspiration from their elders. Members of the second school include Bryan Wynter, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Wilhelmina-Barns Graham, and Paul Feiler. Each of these artists in turn responded to the Cornish landscape, while adopting a radical new language of abstraction that placed them at the center of innovation in postwar British art.


peter lanyon thermal painting st ives
Peter Lanyon, Thermal, 1960, via Tate Gallery, London


For example, Barns-Graham made drawings and paintings featuring craggy cliffs and rocky forms recalling Cornwall’s dramatic outlooks with a crisp, expressive language, while Lanyon painted sweeping, expressionistic abstract paintings based on the abstracted aerial views of Cornwall that he witnessed while travelling overhead in his hang glider, and looking down from above.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.