THE CRYPT GROUP
Removed from centres of commerce and industry, the town was a safe place to bring up children during the Second World War. Adrian Stokes, the art critic who lived at Carbis Bay, encouraged the sculptress Barbara Hepworth and her husband Ben Nicholson to leave London and the threat of bombs and settle there with their triplets. They were followed swiftly by their friends Naum and Miriam Gabo.
Gabo and his brother Pevsner had written a manifesto for the Russian Constructivist Movement in 1920 stating that real space and time were the things an artist must confront in the twentieth century if he wanted to be truly of his time.
Soon Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, eastern philosophy, true naïveté and the English marine tradition were being discussed behind the blackout curtains of the town. The place was a hotbed of creativity and its importance grew.
Borlase Smart welcomed the new artists and persuaded the Society to accept them as members. He gave the young Wilhelmina Barns-Graham his old studio. In 1946 he exhibited with Hepworth, Nicholson and Lanyon in his own studio. When the Society moved to the church, hanging committees tended to display the work of the more avant-garde in the area where the font had been. There, light levels were not good, but they were exhibiting. That same year Peter Lanyon, Sven Berlin, Guido Morris (the letterpress printer who produced most of the publicity for exhibitions in the colony), Dr. John Wells and Bryan Wynter held an exhibition in the crypt. There was another exhibition in the crypt in 1947 which displayed works by seventeen artists including sculpture by Barbara Hepworth and Dennis Mitchell. Wynter was unable to exhibit in this second Crypt Group show, but Wilhelmina Barns-Graham did. These exhibitions really represented some of the most forward-thinking and experimental art being created in Britain at the time. The Group’s final exhibition in 1948 included work by Kit Barker, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Sven Berlin, David Haughton, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, John Wells and Adrian Ryan. There was plenty of criticism of these shows in the press. Even some of the old guard within the Society became quite vocal. Borlase Smart had died in 1947, so he was not there to defuse the arguments.
At an extraordinary general meeting in 1948 Sir Alfred Munnings was elected President. That same year the new Secretary of the Society, David Cox, proposed that members should not show in all exhibitions by right. Shortly after this decision had been made, an exhibition was organised in Swindon and a number of members of the Society were excluded. There were heated arguments. Commander Bradshaw complained that ‘Cox had been doing too much on his own.’ Ten signatories supported the Commander’s protest and a meeting was called. In the furore which ensued many members resigned, including the whole of the Crypt Group.
In a short space of time the Penwith Society of Arts in Cornwall was founded as a tribute to Borlase Smart, stating that they were pursuing his ideals. These were to present exhibitions of ‘the most vital art and craftsmanship, regardless of label, in the Penwith area of Cornwall.’ For many years his name appeared on all their catalogues. It was not a smooth transition and the members of the new society were soon falling out amongst themselves. Nicholson and Hepworth wanted to subdivide the responsibility for hanging the shows, with an academic artist selecting the traditional work and a craftsman selecting the craftwork. Nicholson said that he was not confident about judging the quality of a traditional painting. Peter Lanyon was appalled at this idea, saying that it went against everything Borlase Smart had stood for, and he resigned.
Not to be outdone in celebrating the energy of their former President and Secretary, the St. Ives Society moved that a trust be founded in his memory to purchase all the studios in Back Road West from Moffat Lindner, who was then very elderly. It secured their future and allowed the Society to administrate them for the benefit of the artists in the colony. This was achieved with generous help from the Arts Council.
The popularity of the Society had not diminished and in 1949 there were 11,000 visitors to the gallery and sales had doubled. An exhibition was held in the Crypt Gallery to celebrate the work of Frances Hodgkins, a New Zealander, who had lived in St. Ives during the First World War. This was partially funded by the Arts Council and indicated the standing of the Society.
In 1950 another memorial exhibition was held for Stanhope Forbes, who had died in 1949. The same year Lamorna Birch replaced Alfred Munnings as President. At the AGM it was announced that the Church Council had agreed to rent the Mariners’ Church to the St. Ives Society of Artists for another year with the option of a further twelve months. At this meeting the Society exhibitions were reduced to three a year.
In 1951 the Committee deemed it prudent to close the membership at eighty-nine members and twenty associate members. This appeared healthy, but the impact of the split became more and more noticeable. The advanced age of many of the principal members was a problem. They became known by the younger artists in the town as ‘the Bath chair brigade.’
Without the dynamic leadership of Borlase Smart, the Society deemed it too expensive to continue the programme of provincial touring shows, and in consequence the non-resident members ceased to exhibit with them. Soon it was the Penwith Society that was dominating the headlines. The Crypt Gallery was sublet to the St. Ives Operatic Society as a costume and props store and rehearsal room.
The Coronation and Festival Exhibition of 1953, which was opened by Prince Chula Chakrabongse of Thailand, was intended to be a real showcase. The critics slated it. Financially it was a disaster and by October the Society was overdrawn at the bank.
However eloquent the traditionalists may have been, there was little they could do or say to alter the change in attitude that was occurring.
The President of the Society, Lamorna Birch, died in 1955 and Claude Muncaster was elected to the post. Commander Bradshaw had been forced to resign as Secretary in 1952 when he had suffered a second coronary, but he recovered sufficiently to accept the post of Vice-President and Chairman. Ever practical, it was he who rescued the Society from the jaws of financial disaster. It appeared that part of the problem had been caused by a curator who had removed works from the gallery and sold them ‘without accounting for the proceeds.’
In 1956 the local Church Council announced that they were intending to sell the Mariners’ Church and the lease was to be terminated. If the Society was to survive it would have to buy the building. This was achieved with a generous loan from benefactors Dr. and Mrs. W. E. Glover. In his position as Chairman it was Commander Bradshaw who made the arrangements for repaying the loan and interest. It was decided to raise the annual subscription in order to ensure repayment. There was little argument and it was a proud day for the Society when they came to own their gallery.
Commander Bradshaw, the senior surviving member of the Society and its founder, died in 1960 at the age of seventy-two.
In 1972 the then President of the Society, Hugh E. Ridge, proposed that they reduce the number of exhibitions to two, March to June and June to October. The more senior members, who were also the Committee, were finding it too demanding to have to select and hang three exhibitions per year. This number was further reduced in 1979 to a single show.
The St. Ives Operatic Society vacated the Crypt in 1990. For forty years it had been used as the rehearsal room for an impressive list of musicals and summer shows, but the growing number of props and costumes stored was fast becoming a fire hazard.
The fortunes of the St. Ives Society of Artists had revived and it was decided to refurbish the Crypt Gallery. This was achieved with the enthusiastic help of members and it reopened in 1992 as the Mariners Gallery. It was offered for hire to individual artists, artists’ groups and art societies on a monthly basis and the applications flooded in.
One of the major problems with any organisation is that it can ossify, but things changed and a broader approach could be seen. The diversity of exhibitions in the Mariners Gallery injected new life into the old Society. Returning to the ideals of Borlase Smart, the policy was to show work of excellence, both traditional and contemporary. This, coupled with the arrival of the Tate Gallery in the town, led to its rejuvenation.
In 2004 Nicola Tilley was elected Chair and through her energy and enthusiasm things continued to develop in positive and exciting ways. With some help from Arts Council England, South West, the organisation was restructured and an annual programme of eight exhibitions was introduced. Three of these were members’ shows, but the remaining five represented the works of other artist groups. Most were selected and hung by respected curators who had no connection with the Society. These were controversial changes which led to some resignations. However, many applications to join came from young, dynamic artists attracted by the Society’s optimistic and progressive profile. By 2008 twenty-eight new members were elected.
In 2007 the members hosted a changing programme of their own work in the Mariners Gallery. These complemented the shows in the main gallery upstairs, but still made it available for hire at other times of the year.
Memorable recent shows have represented the work of artists from the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, the Porthmeor Studios, the work of teachers from the St. Ives School of Painting, members of the Newlyn Society of Artists and mixed media and textile students from Cornwall College. Links have been made with Tate St. Ives, the Newlyn Gallery, Penlee House, the Borlase Smart Trust, Cornwall College, the St. Ives School of Painting, The St. Ives Archive Study Centre and numerous visiting colleges, whilst a programme of performances, lectures and workshops has established the Society’s place in the community on another level.
The Mariners’ Church has been the home of the St. Ives Society of Artists for over fifty years. The building is over a hundred years old and in need of some essential refurbishment. Like all old buildings it constantly needs money, but the Society has survived the ebb and flow of its fortunes due to the dedication and vision of some of its notable members. There is real promise for the future.