The Cornwall Workshop

Field Trip 4: Studios and Stones: new perspectives, new stories

Stories in the Stones
by Lynn Parr

The stones of Cornwall are like the bare bones of the soul. Elemental, wind-scoured. History looking back through the glazes of centuries, untouched by the human melée; not even noticing the frenetic dance of life.

Sculptors may try to make stone look like something else; yet it is still stone. It will always be stone. Nothing can change its nature except the slow drip of time itself.

Barbara Hepworth knew this. She didn’t try to carve new patterns into the surface of stone, nor pretend it was anything other than it was. She merely polished and enhanced what was inherent and let the stone speak for itself. Thus, the sculptures in her garden at St Ives sing stories that the plants know, and that we ourselves recognise. They belong.

This natural resonance echoes through her workshop, even though it was reconstructed after the fire that interrupted her time here. Her tools, her overalls wait for her to resume her work; a scruffy chair in the conservatory sags as if she has only just stood up. In her reception room in the Palais de Danse opposite, untouched since she left it, time has no meaning. Torn cotton drapes at smeary windows cast shadows over Fifties furniture; peeling lino speaks of countless feet dancing, dancing. The clock, thick with dust, has stopped to mark time standing still. There is the smell of age and celebration and secrets. Downstairs, the outline of the monumental Single Form still stains the floor; her papers are stacked and strewn on her desk. There’s no doubt that, on a still summer’s evening, when the sea is that glassy St Ives teal, you can hear the tap-tap of Barbara in her workshop as she polishes another pearl from the earth. She is still here.

The Porthmeor Studios have less of that resonance of a single mind, since they have hosted a succession of artists since 1880, from Ben Nicolson to Francis Bacon. The Modernists came with ideas garnered from Russia and Paris, but then “reconnected with older forms, such as standing stones and the sea,” explains Tate’s Martin Clark. What must have Alfred Wallis and other local residents thought upon seeing the weird and wonderful abstracts coming out of the Modernists’ studios? Wallis’s answer was to resolutely stick to what he knew best – his fishing boats. He didn’t even let his own growing fame get in the way of real life: artist Simon Fujiwara recounts how, when chased up for paintings for a Tate exhibition, he admitted he’d given them all away to cheer up children in a hospital. He must be bemused by the pilgrims trudging up the graveyard hill to pay homage at his grand tiled grave.

This part of Cornwall has an ancient beauty. On the winding lanes out to Zennor, prehistoric walls mirror wind patterns on the sea while bluebells pool in field corners. Zennor’s pub and church float in a green ocean, echoing the tale of the mermaid who took the squire’s son beneath the waves and who is remembered on a chair in the church.

You either love Zennor or you hate it, says local resident Catherine Penhaul. Zennor people are known as goats, adds her husband, Chunky, while St Ives people are known as hakes. The wild Atlantic is docile today, but it’s a different story most of the time. “Winter has its own draw,” says Catherine with quiet understatement. Goats are good at clinging to windy crags.

Atop its own windy crag, Patrick Heron’s Eagle’s Nest is being “Tateified”, as his daughter, Katharine, puts it. Her husband, Julian Feary, recounts the work done on the house, which was the centre of an arts web across the peninsula. Virginia Woolf complained it was the coldest house in Britain: once you got into bed you couldn’t turn over. WH Hudson stayed there; George Mallory climbed the massive boulder in the garden. DH Lawrence wrote Women in Love in Zennor – and was asked to leave because he and his German wife were suspected of being spies. Local tradition has it that Catherine Penhaul’s progressive grandmother was the inspiration for Lady Chatterley’s Lover since she married the farmhand: but Catherine says not. The infamous writer Aleister Crowley lived nearby and was the centre of a cult of sado-masochism and black magic. And then there were the artists, who frequented the local pubs and found inspiration in the heathered hills overlooking the sea.

“I like to think of this huge matrix of movers and shakers,” says Katharine. “The place gave people space and time to think and be creative – but through it was this dark stream of black magic.”

So now the house has been stripped bare and rebuilt inside, where do Patrick Heron and his friends reside? Perhaps in the garden, with its narrow paths redolent with jasmine and azalea, lichen-spattered granite and atlas cedar; the garden wrapped around moorland stones like water settling around beach rocks. Perhaps in the textured weave of the land as it flows down to the sea; or up on the crags where the buzzards wheel and the quoits bridge the ages. You can feel the power of this corner of Cornwall even now, when the sun is warm and cuckoos call from the woods: how much more magnificent it must be when gales whip up the Atlantic and rain crosshatches the sky.

The stories of Zennor and St Ives will go on, with new ones accumulating like sand on the beach. Even this one brief day brought tales to arrest and stir as conversation flowed in the spring sunshine. An identity shock as a young woman discovered she was partly Romany, thanks to her own non-conforming grandmother; yet she also realised that the jigsaw pieces of her life were slotting into place, among people she’d always been told to avoid – just as Simon Fujiwara was inspired by the ‘degenerate’ St Ives artists he was warned about at school. Perspectives challenged; experiences exchanged; the journey shared. Talk of outsiders coming into a rural Irish community generations ago, as in Zennor: but unlike Zennor, remaining aloof and despising the locals: their arrogance displayed in a museum exhibition of ‘anthropological’ photographs, for which local people were measured like Easter Island heads. Experience of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which – like St Ives today – is a centre of the arts where no one who creates those arts can afford to live. And echoing the Cornish walls that surround us on this journey, a story about the night the Berlin Wall came down, and how people from the East filled the West’s supermarkets to buy up all the bananas; and No Man’s Land between the two states now reclaimed by nature.

Strange truths. Yet somehow they all fit in this wild landscape of sea and wind and stone. Perhaps that’s what the stones of Cornwall really are – stories condensed by wind and weather and time into crystal-filled geodes waiting to be cracked open and shared once more.

Read more about Field Trip 4: Studios and Stones in the Programme listing.