St Ives in green and violet

I went to St Ives with three questions; questions derived from experiences of walking in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Kochi: What interrupts me? How do places merge? Where is India?

How literal should this last question be, I wondered? I have never been quite certain of what is to be gained by placing a map of one place over another, and an initial search for cultural links with India yielded pretty scant results. I had noticed, earlier in the year, that Fort Kochi and St Ives share some key features: both were originally fishing villages, both have growing tourist industries, both reel under the unlikely location of large arts institutions at their heart: Tate St Ives and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale respectively. There, however, the similarities end. What could it mean to look for India in St Ives? On this dripping, misty, soft Cornish day, what could possibly connect them?

A blog by Dilip Barad maps the mention of India in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, a novel nominally set in Scotland, but quite clearly based on St Ives. I nose through back streets to find her summer home, the unmarked, ‘colonial style’ Talland House, now holiday lets. I stand in the front garden to witness its (now encumbered) view of Godrevy lighthouse, etched lightly today. Woolf mentions India six times, as a place of exoticism, desire, adventure, precious commodities and white, male rule.

I began with the knowledge that among the St Ives painters, Winifred Nicholson, most commonly referred to as ‘Ben Nicholson’s first wife’, visited India with her father, the former under-secretary of State for India in 1919. Winifred, then Winifred Roberts, was to say that she learned about colour and light from this visit, which also took in Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and Myanmar (Burma):

“I went to India, and noticed how eastern art uses lilac to create sunlight.”

“I saw Violet in India, in the gossamer transparency of sarees, in white marble palaces, in white sunlight…” (W. Nicholson, quoted in J. Nicholson, p.12)

Everyone says the artists came to St Ives for the light. But Nedira Yakir positions this as an ‘exotic’ fascination with St Ives as Arcadia. Instead, we might see the arrival of artists as ‘part of the massive population migration in Europe with the onslaught of the horrific war’, motivated less by the light, than the availability of cheap lodging, and painting supplies. While Margaret Mellis comments on Cornwall’s ‘particularly good light’, Yakir also points to literary articulations of St Ives as a haunted, stormy landscape. A place of exile and ghosts.

It is dark today, though the sea’s milky turquoise seems lit from beneath, a darker line on the horizon, the surface crossed and re-crossed by cloud-shadows. One seems to hear the plants drinking the rain.

The narrative of the St Ives school tends to begin with the 1928 arrival of Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood and their ‘discovery’ of Alfred Wallis. Winifred’s undoubted presence on this visit is frequently unremarked in that positioning of working class Wallis as a ‘primitive’ painter. She, like Wallis, is ‘other’ to the male avant-garde who ‘colonise’ the area, and her own significance as an artist, preoccupied with colour and light, is rendered less visible than her role as mother:

“Very few have recognized the twin dragons of art and life – art in the sense of music, writing, painting here and now, life in the sense of living, home, children, relationships…the perfect home-making, bringing up children, makes one tired because, heard or unheard, the other dragon is calling…” (W. Nicholson in A. Nicholson)

She was hardly in Cornwall, it is argued. When Ben moved in with Barbara Hepworth, she sensibly took herself elsewhere… still more sensibly to Paris, where she developed further as a painter and remained an indispensable source of advice and inspiration, even to her straying husband.

She is part of St Ives history, but like other aspects of its history, largely forgotten.

The pilchard hut is indicated with a sign, but the old mines, running the length of the Stennack (‘tinny’) River, are not in evidence on tourist itineraries.* For this reason, I went looking for the Pedn Olva copper mine at the hotel of the same name, and found what seemed to be an old working on the end of Porthminster Beach, a slit cut into the cliff’s side.

What interrupts me?

On this day of the week, at this time of year, few of the regular interruptions of tourists and vehicles and gulls. No one is selling me icecream, or trips to seal island or Godrevy, or floral headbands, or friendship bracelets or hair braids. No one is playing Frisbee on the beach or annoyingly kicking sand into my coffee.

I am aware, though, that I am constantly interrupted by beauty, my idea of it, my experience of it, the overwhelming shifts in colour across that watery horizon. Even away from the sea, as I walk inland, the brilliance of the magenta flowers, making me think of Winifred Nicholson’s paintings, with their characteristic interruptions of deep pink/violet brilliance.

How do spaces merge?

Winifred Nicholson liked to paint flowers on a windowsill. ‘Sparks of colour’, near and far, sitting in and looking out. Two dragons, one inside and one outside, one an outsider, one an insider.

I looked for frames and thresholds, going into all the little alleyways off the Digey that offer access along the back doors and to nowhere else and which feel like private space. In one alley, so quietly tucked away from the main street, I surprised a gull on its nest.

The landscape, too, is a frame, its curves defining beaches. Peter Lanyon used to go hang-gliding to see the landscape from new angles. Barbara Hepworth’s sculptures, while abstract, take inspiration from the standing stones of West Penwith, the looped rock of the Men-an-Tol.

Where is India? This question shifted, failed.

Sharanya Murali offers several provocations for ‘de-colonising walking’, asking for attention to the particularities and histories of architectural forms (including the blurring of boundaries and the ways in which spaces change). She points to the need to ‘identify the locus of enunciation’ – what it means to be this person in this place, this walking woman in this Cornish town, this town I must confess I love with the childish passion of an intimate outsider, finding in my failure to answer ‘where is India?’, that India  is where it always was, but that some answer can be given to the question of the whereabouts of empire.

Empire is present in the question of women artists, in the question of what has been left out of the narrative of St Ives. In the question, specifically, of Winifred Nicholson, daughter of Charles Henry Roberts who ‘won the friendship and felt the greatness of Gandhi’, upper-class coloniser/exile in this Cornish fishing/post-industrial mining town. For despite her privilege, she was also subject, the other artist, the othered woman the other woman replaced. Her voice was not heard in the St Ives story. The Tate bookshop, when asked, gave me a book full of Kit Wood’s letters to her, lacking a single reply. Yet there she was, walking the streets or sitting by windows, painting daily, illuminating the darkness of St Ives with the smallest touch of violet.



Many thanks to Sharanya Murali for her helpful comments.

Winifred Nicholson: Liberation of Colour (2016-17) is currently showing in Djangogly Art Gallery, Nottingham (March 4th to June 4th) and will then come to Falmouth Art Gallery June 24th-Sept 16th (previously at Middlebrough Institute of Modern Art (22nd October 2016-Feb 12th 2017).

Murali, Sharanya (2017), A Manifesto to Decolonise Walking: Approximate Steps, forthcoming in Performance Research

Nicholson, Jovan (2016), Winifred Nicholson: Liberation of Colour, I B Tauris: London and New York.

Nicholson, Andrew (1987) ed. Unknown Colour; Paintings, Letters, Writings by Winifred Nicholson, London: Faber and Faber.

Yakir, Nedira (2002), Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Margaret Mellis: The Gendered Construction of ‘St Ives’  Display, Positioning and Dispacement, PhD Thesis, University of Plymouth.

*Geevor Mine, not far from St Ives, is a major tourist attraction, however.