The home of the St Ives Society of Artists can be found in the Downalong area of St Ives town. A labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and alleyways lined by granite cottages, the old town area radiates from the working harbour which has appeared in countless paintings and photographs. The Mariners’ Church forms a majestic foil to the jumble of smaller buildings and the imposing roof can be seen from almost every vantage point.
St Ives in the 19th century was a vibrant hub of fishing, most of which was exported to the Continent to meet demand for sardines, mackerel and herring. The townspeople lived from fishing but their community life revolved around religion and, in particular, the churches and chapels in the area.
During the mid-1800’s the Anglians leased an old loft, known as ‘The Long Run’ which served as a Church Infant Schoolroom and then in 1867 became the School Chapel. By 1892, the Anglican vicar of St Ives Cannon John Balmer Jones MA, proposed that a new church be built for fishermen in the town. It was only after his death in 1901 that the funds were finally raised to make his dream a reality.
The site containing the Chapel was officially purchased in 1903 and Plymouth architect Edmund Sedding was commissioned to create an imposing gothic building to strengthen faith and congregation numbers. The building was never finished. Visitors today may notice that the niches stand empty of their intended saints and the bell tower never got its spire.
In 1905, the Bishop of Truro dedicated the building to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of fishermen and children. Despite the church being designed to accommodate 270 parishioners, only 100 attended the opening. Fishing families were largely non-conformists and the town already had many Christian factions. The Anglican Church faced particular difficulties in winning people over following an age-old dispute about the Church levying tithes on fish landed in the harbour.
By the 1940’s, the demise of the pilchard industry and the tragedy of the First World War taking its toll of young men, meant that the church fell into disuse and disrepair. During the Second World War, Smeaton’s Pier was used as a disembarkation point for the home and allied troops for deployment to Europe. The Mariners’ Church was requisitioned as a field hospital and used by the St John Ambulance Brigade and the Red Cross.
In 1945, once the war had ended, the building became the new permanent home of the St Ives Society of Artists and we have been here ever since. The Society is committed to protecting and ensuring the maintenance of the Mariners’ Church for generations to come. In modern times, this has included having a new roof fitted in 2016, a new lighting system and yearly painting and decorating to keep the gallery looking its best.