Our History

Learn about the creation of the St Ives Society of Artists and our nearly 100-year history.

Our History

The St Ives Society of Artists, formed in 1927, is a group of around 80 artists with links to Cornwall who regularly show work together in the Mariners’ Gallery on Norway Square.

In the 19th century fishing was the business of the town. The working harbour was busy with boats catching mackerel, pilchards and herring. Between 1829 and 1838 St Ives supplied the Italian market with six thousand four hundred hogsheads of pilchards annually.

By the 1880s the industry was in decline as the great shoals of silver no longer appeared on the coastline. With the emptying of the pilchard palaces and net-lofts, a new type of tenant took residence in the town: artists searching for light, inspiration and studios.

Artists had been visiting St Ives for many years. Turner had been twice, John Brett and Henry Moore were both regular visitors, and the arrival of the railway made transportation of large artworks created in the town possible for London exhibitions.

With a mild climate, variety of coastal geography and southern-balanced daylight hours, the area soon entranced other artists including Tolamache, Whistler, Sickert and Stanhope Forbes to paint the heaving seas around the peninsular. Between the 1880’s and 1920’s saw the opening of the first gallery in St Ives, the founding of the St Ives Arts Club as a hub for artists to mix, the first school of painting and the arrival of potters Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada.

On 26th January 1927, marine artist Commander George Fagan Bradshaw proposed the foundation of a society of raise standards of the artist colony. Starting off in Lanham’s Gallery and Julius Olsson’s studio in Back Road West, in 1945 the Society eventually settled in the Mariners’ Church which had fallen into disrepair over the years and was requisitioned as a field hospital during the Second World War.

Nurses stand in the Mariners’ Church field hospital, 1944

Over the years, the Society attracted membership of many Royal Academicians including: Stanhope Forbes, Lamorna Birch, Julius Olsson, Adrian Stokes and Sir Stanley Spencer.

The turmoil of the Second World War also brought down a new wave of artists seeking safety and inspiration. These included sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth, her husband Ben Nicholson and their triplet children, along with Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Sven Berlin, Naum Gabo and the young Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. They become members of the Society in short order and the town was soon alight with discussions of Cubism, Futurism, Constructivism, naiveté and marine artwork.

The new members brought to St Ives some of the most avant-garde and forward-thinking experimental work produced in Britain during this period. For some of the old guard within the Society, this work was a step too far and, after encountering resistance to their cause, the group began to exhibit their work in the Crypt of the Society building. Without the calming presence of Borlase Smart, who had died a year earlier, the Society split. Nicholson, Hepworth, Lanyon and their group set up the Penwith Society of Arts which remains today and can be found on Back Road East, just 100 yards from the Mariners’ Gallery.

Original poster for the Crypt Group, 1948

Over the following years, the Society experienced a dip in popularity as tastes changed in favour of the abstract and the original members aged. In 1990, the Crypt space, which had been used for 40-years by the St Ives Operatic Society, was vacated and transformed into an exhibition space once more for artists. The Mariners’ Gallery decided to hold diversified exhibitions with both traditional and contemporary work to appeal to all visitors. This, coupled with the arrival of the Tate St Ives, rejuvenated the Society and its members.

Over our nearly 100 year history, the Society has seen wars of man and artist, changes of taste and leadership, success and failure. All of these events have led to the thriving group of exciting artists we currently call our Members and to the successful gallery we are so privileged to enjoy in the Mariners’ Church.

The St Ives Society of Artists, 2022