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Cornwall as Crucible: Modernity and Internationalism in Mid-Century Britain

by Theresa Thompson, Arts Correspondent

Naum Gabo, Linear Construction in Space no1

There and yet not there, seeming to float on its plinth, Linear Construction In Space No1, apivotal work in the career of the Russian Constructivist artist Naum Gabo (1890-1997), appears to change in form as you circle it.

Gabo’s exquisite modernist sculpture now sits alongside works by Dame Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Sandra Blow, Sir Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon, and others asthe centrepiece of an exhibition at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham that takes a fresh look at artists working in and around St Ives from the 1930s to 1960s.

Much as St Ives, on the face of ita remote small town on the north Cornish coast was the unlikely setting for a group of avant-garde artists in the mid-20th century, so the city of Birmingham situated in the very heart of England might seem an unlikely place for an exhibition of art created by artists inspired by the rugged landscapes of Cornwall.

Yet Gabo’s work, newly acquired by the Barber in 2017, made an inspired starting point fortheir exhibition Cornwall as Crucible that explores how and why the seaside town of St Ives established itself as a hotbed of experimental art and modernism in that period.

Cornwall as Crucible ...explores how and why the seaside town of St Ives established itself as a hotbed of experimental art and modernism in that period.

Many of the artists who settled in Cornwall around then (Peter Lanyon was one of the few St Ives artists actually born in the town) were exploring the boundaries between representation and abstraction in their art. And they were profoundly influenced by the landscape.

Gabo wrote from Cornwall to critic and art historian, Herbert Read in 1944:

“Where do I get my forms from? . . .  I find them everywhere around me … I see them in the green thicket of leaves and trees. I can find them in the naked stones on hills and roads. … I look and find them in the bends of waves on the sea between the open work of foaming crests.”

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham’s Winter Landscape, 1952

Jerwood Collection © Wilhelmina Bams-Graham Trust

Experimentation was key. Gabo’s Linear Construction In Space No1 (made 1942-3) is a perfect example of Russian artist’s desire to create abstract art using modern industrial technology. It is made of Perspex with nylon monofilaments - a continuous thread forms an elliptical space at the centre - and it is amazing to think of it, this hyper-modern piece being made in a domestic setting in Cornwall. Perspex had only just been created at the time.

It was the first sculpture in which Gabo used stringing. Barbara Hepworth similarly used space and stringing in her works. I asked the Barber’s Director, Nicola Kalinsky who had thought of using stringing first? No-one really knows, she replied; Gabo and Hepworth both started to use stringing around the same time; it became a cause of friction between them.

Not only is this exhibition, though small, a celebration of modernity, it also highlights the significant contribution made by women artists, such as Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Margaret Mellis, and Sandra Blow, alongside Hepworth herself. A particularly lovely painting on show is Barns-Graham’s Winter Landscape, 1952, that although inspired by a visit to Switzerland nonetheless shows her interest in the geometry of natural forms; a small oil and pencil on board, it repays close inspection.

The pictures are striking and the display labels concise and thought-provoking. The text beside Alfred Wallis’ painting Two Boats (circa 1930) briefly tells the legendary tale of how the retired Cornish fisherman was ‘discovered’ by artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood as they walked by his St Ives cottage in 1928. Wallis had taken up painting in his 70’s after his wife died, doing it “for company” he said. His naive style of painting influenced many artworks of the period.

Alfred Wallis Two Boats (c.1930). Jerwood Collection

Sound recordings from the British Library’s Artists’ Lives archive add another dimension to the show.Visitors can sit down and listen to five artists’ recollections of living and working together.It is a nice touch, giving more of a feeling for the personalities behind the art, their lives, friendships and rivalries.

For instance, Margaret Mellis shares her impressions of Gabo. She remembers that he was “very nice,” had a “frightfully nice Russian accent” and “didn’t seem to be doing any work, in fact he seemed to do nothing at all really except eat yoghurt and go for walks, but his ideas seemed to come out and sort of influence people...”

The exhibition is organised in partnership with the Jerwood Collection, a privately owned collection of modern and contemporary British art, and in addition the exhibition includes rarely seen drawings by Hepworth and Lanyon from Birmingham University’s collections.

And do allow time on your visit, if you can, to see the Barber’s permanent collection. It comprises 160 paintings dating from the early Renaissance through to the late 20th century, sculpture and decorative arts, and has regularly changing displays of its print and coin collection (the Barberhas one of the most important caches of Roman, Byzantine and Medieval coins in the world).


Note: The Jerwood Collection is a privately-owned collection of 20th and 21st century British art. The first painting was bought in 1993 and it now holds just under 300 works by some of the best-known names of modern British art. See:


Cornwall as Crucible. Modernity and Internationalism in Mid-Century Britain

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Showing until: 17 May 2020

For details see:


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