Words by Mercedes Smith
An inspiration for art collectors for more than 50 years, what does it take to head one of the UK’s most influential art galleries?
The New Craftsman Gallery has been inspiring art collectors for more than half a century, playing host to every important name in British craft, design and painting. Ahead of its major September Festival exhibition, we talk to Gallery Director Ylenia Haase.
When the New Craftsman Gallery celebrated its 50th year in 2012, it issued a limited-edition poster with exactly 300 names on it, each an artist shown there since its opening in 1962. That list is a ‘who’s who’ of British art and craft, from naïve painter Alfred Wallis, whose untutored style triggered decades of subsequent art movements, to luminaries of St Ives art such as Breon O’Casey, Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Winter, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost and Sandra Blow, to internationally celebrated potters Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada, Hans Coper and Emmanuel Cooper, to world class contemporary ceramicists Rupert Spira, Akiko Hirai, Matthew Chambers and Jerwood Prize winner Adam Buick. The influence of this unassuming, yet historically important gallery on St Ives’ Fore Street is immeasurable, supporting, as it has done, the fledgling careers of some of the world’s most important artists. Ahead of the forthcoming Art of Gathering exhibition, Director Ylenia Haase tells us what it is like to be at the helm of one of the UK’s most influential art galleries.
Ylenia, tell us a little about the history of the New Craftsman
“The gallery was founded in 1962 by Janet Leach [celebrated 20th century potter and wife of Bernard Leach], then within a few years Janet went into partnership with Mary ‘Boots’ Redgrave. Boots brought with her Michael Hunt, who was taken on as Gallery Manager and went on to work here for 53 years straight, if you can believe that. He is an absolute authority on St Ives art. Since Easter of this year he has been semi-retired [aged 82], but he is still here whenever he wants to be, helping us hang shows and entertaining guests at our Private Views. During the early years the gallery focused primarily on ceramics and interior design objects and was incredibly innovative: it was all Danish furniture and hand-woven textiles in a space dotted with Lucie Rie pots and Barbara Hepworth sculptures. Janet and Boots were showing Charles Eames chairs here, and long before Habitat was founded Jasper Conran was making furniture for the New Craftsman. In the 1970s, the gallery started to deal in painting, showing artists like Peter Lanyon and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, who are now recognized as some of this country’s most important 20th century artists. In 2008 the gallery came up for sale, and my husband Paul and I were able to buy it. For several years we left the space exactly as it had always been, then in 2011 we took the risk of overhauling the space, opening it up across two floors and creating a spacious gallery that could accommodate a whole variety of contemporary craft and painting. Since that time, we have worked hard to maintain the gallery’s ethos and reputation, and we are very proud of that.”
Priest Cove, Creeping Tide' by Neil Davies
'Mandate of Heaven' by Matthew Lanyon
'Land Marks' by Patricia Shone (Image: Shannon Tofts)
'Sake Bottles' by Akiko Hirai
'Blackthorn Pouring Vessel' by Stuart Cairns
How did it feel, taking on a gallery of such historic importance to St Ives?
“Well we had always been collectors of St Ives art, and had great respect for the New Craftsman. Taking ownership of this space was a huge turning point in my life. I knew that as directors of such an important art venue we had a great responsibility to the people of St Ives, and I knew it would take up every ounce of my energy and commitment, but I had a great friend in Michael [Hunt], who stayed in place as Gallery Manager and worked with me to maintain and expand the gallery’s place in contemporary art and craft. We took our time over the first three years, then began to develop our own ideas regarding the gallery’s future. I knew we needed to bring in new artists and reach new audiences, but it was absolutely crucial to prioritize the gallery’s unique history and its special atmosphere. With all that in mind, we now show the very best work by 20th century St Ives artists, alongside the UK’s most inspiring contemporary painters and craftspeople. Maintaining the heritage of this place and supporting new talent is always our focus. In 2012, we were proud to celebrate the gallery’s 50th year. That was an auspicious moment and I won’t pretend we did it quietly! We made a big noise, with a landmark exhibition featuring work by modern and contemporary artists that have exhibited at the gallery over the last 50 years. It was a hugely popular show, and a really proud moment for myself and the gallery team.”
Tell us how you select artists, and what factors are key to including their work
“When it comes to contemporary artists, I go with my instincts, and certainly my love of ceramics has driven a lot of my decision making. We regularly exhibit work by innovative ceramicists – like Akiko Hirai, whose pieces exhibit the most beautiful neutral hues and fabulously rich textures and Tanya Gomez, who has been groundbreaking in her use of colour and form. The work we show here by Matthew Chambers is absolutely extraordinary, as anyone who has seen his work will know, and for the last two years we have shown the work of Jin Eui Kim, who is effectively bringing Op Art into ceramics. With all types of craft, I want to see a high level of skill in the execution of the work, and an interesting use of materials. Simple is always good – it doesn’t have to be complicated to be great work. It’s harder to define good painting, because I think that’s more subjective. In essence, I am always looking for painters whose work will move the gallery’s remit forward. Cornwall has some truly outstanding landscape painters – Neil Davies, for example, shows here every summer and is one of our most collected contemporary artists – but the gallery’s connection to St Ives Modernism means we also have a real passion for abstraction. For many years we have been proud to show the work of Matthew Lanyon, which is of such importance to Cornwall and to this gallery’s history. New Craftsman showed the work of his father, Peter Lanyon, and Matthew took that legacy and made it something truly significant to the history of this area.”
"Blue Spiral' by Matthew Chambers
18ct Gold and Carnelian Necklace by Guy Royle (Image: Bob Berry)
'Cylindrical Forms' by Jin Eui Kim
What can we expect from your St Ives September Festival Show?
“Our September Festival exhibition is always the most high-profile of the year, and because of that we like to schedule something really special. This year we are presenting a multidisciplinary exhibition called The Art of Gathering. It will showcase the work of seven contemporary artists who use the act of gathering or harvesting materials as an integral part of their arts practice. The exhibition includes sculptural baskets by Annemarie O’Sullivan and Joe Hogan, who was shortlisted for the Loewe Foundation Craft Prize in 2018. We will have ceramics by Patricia Shone, who received an award from the V&A at Ceramic Art London this year, and work by Forest and Found, a studio collective who have just been selected for the Jerwood Makers Open Bursary prize. We’ll have applied textiles by Abigail Booth, paintings by Michael Porter, jewellery and gathered objects by silversmith Stuart Cairns, and a beautiful collection of turned wood vessels by Max Bainbridge. For many of these artists, this will be the first time they have exhibited in Cornwall, which means that we are bringing a lot of influences, both rural and urban, together in one space, which is very exciting. There will also be a specially commissioned installation by Annemarie O’Sullivan at the fishing cellars on Porthmeor beach, which will be open to the public during the festival. You’d expect me to say of course that it’s a ‘must see’ exhibition, but really, it’s a ‘must see’!”
The Art of Gathering is curated by Sarah Frangleton, and is on show from 14th September to 12th October at New Craftsman Gallery, 24 Fore St, St Ives TR26 1HE