Above: Felicity Mara in Studio 4, photo by Paul Massey

Porthmeor Studios: Past and Future

Chris Hibbert, Manager at Porthmeor Studios, Cornwall, on balancing heritage with contemporary artistic practice in St Ives

The Grade II* Porthmeor Studios in St Ives, Cornwall has for over 130 years played a key role in the history of British art. This incredible heritage permeates through the whole building, but its main function is still to provide workspace for the current generation of creative artists, and there is a careful balancing act to ensure that history does not interfere with contemporary practice.

An artists' complex on top of pilchard cellars

This remarkable building sitting in the centre of Porthmeor beach was built in the early 1800s for the St Ives pilchard industry, which was then the most important fishery in the whole of Cornwall. The cellars are still used by fishermen, and have changed very little since 1890. However it is now best known for its connection with artists, who have been here since the dawn of the St Ives art colony in the 1880s. This makes it probably the oldest artists' studio complex in the country, but also some of the most important figures in British art have worked here, including Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Roger Hilton, Peter Lanyon, Trevor Bell and even Francis Bacon.

Decades of exposure to Atlantic gales had significantly damaged the building, leaving it in a very dangerous condition, and it was placed on the English Heritage 'Buildings at Risk' register. Fortunately this incredible heritage and its unique connections with fishing and art helped us to raise the £4 million needed for the recent renovations, which were completed in 2012.

Porthmeor Studios, St Ives

Securing and updating Porthmeor's heritage

Architect MJ Long of Long & Kentish noted that she was probably the first architect ever to be involved with the building. The project posed a wide range of really interesting questions on how to reconcile its heritage assets with the requirement to provide high quality studio workspace and ensure its financial viability, including a vigorous debate on dealing with bits of graffiti and the scribblings on studio walls made by Ben Nicholson and Patrick Heron. Fortunately English Heritage were very understanding in helping us deal with the constraints of a listed building, and the architects were universally praised for the sympathetic nature of their repairs and interventions. The building subsequently received numerous awards and accolades including national RIBA and RICS awards.

Porthmeor is currently configured with 15 artists' studios, 12 of which are on long leases to allow artists the security to develop their practice, with 3 studios on short tenancies to provide opportunities for visiting artists or for local artists to carry out project work. The building also provides two studios each for the Trust and St Ives School of Painting for their respective programmes, three cellars for commercial fishermen, and one cellar is used to display The Maritime Artist, a site-specific installation by the American artist Mark Dion.

The Trust runs a year-round community programme based in the stunning Borlase Smart Room, boasting one of the best views imaginable. For most of the year, the rest of the building is private workspace used by artists and fishermen, but during the St Ives September Festival (12th-23rd September), the doors are thrown open and the public are encouraged to enter. Open Studios and guided tours give a taste both of its history and how it is used today, and there will be a full programme of arts, literature and heritage-themed talks and films, demonstrations of net setting and willow crab pot making, and some exciting performances – one of which starts on the beach and ends in a huge fishermen's cellar. Not to be missed.

Ben Nicholson at Porthmeor Studios in 1951

Future plans

Our most exciting venture is to use the three short-let studios to attract inspirational creative talent, and we are looking for business partners to help us to develop residencies for emerging and established artists. The year 1959 is a model for this programme. Francis Bacon as an emerging artist working towards his first solo show at the Marlborough Gallery, rented a studio at Porthmeor for six months, making a big impact on the local artistic community. In the same year the celebrated American artist Mark Rothko came to stay with Peter Lanyon and to meet with Patrick Heron and Terry Frost. Porthmeor was then undoubtedly the focus of international attention, and provides a benchmark for the Trust to aim for in the next few years.

Please visit the Porthmeor Studios website to find out more about the history of Porthmeor Studios and the artists who have worked here, as well as our current programme and who is here now.

The Maritime Artist, installation by Mark Dion (2013)

About the author...

Chris Hibbert is Manager at Porthmeor Studios, St Ives. The studios combine Cornish history with contemporary art, and boast an illustrious list of former inhabitants.

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