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From pilchards to paintings

Words by Rebecca Hawkey

A gallery that brought art to one of Cornwall’s most beloved towns, and how you can play a part in keeping it alive.

Penwith Gallery, a fellowship founded by some of the most influential artists to cross our shores, can be found nestled within the cobbled back streets of St Ives, Cornwall. This former pilchard packing factory was granted a new lease of life when The Penwith Society of Arts (PSA) acquired it in 1961, in a bid to continue exhibiting their vast array of works from one single location, which is where they still reside to this day. This original collection of artists, including the likes of Dame Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson, Bernard Leach, and Sven Berlin, to name but a few, are a cacophony of creative legends that has inspired generations of artists, and being based in St Ives only solidifies their stature thanks to this town’s rich history in the arts.

Whilst the building itself has, I’m sure, seen more than we could ever imagine, the work that inhabits it is just as captivating. Stepping through these doors you can expect to see myriad collections from lifetime PSA members past and present who exhibit here all year round, with at least one piece to be on display in the Member’s gallery for you to enjoy. You can also see work from Associate Members, who have three exhibitions a year on rotation. These exhibitions are selected from a collection of submitted works, so from the amazing register of Associates a variety of artists are chosen each time, ensuring a varied and eclectic collection on display for visitors to peruse, and to potentially purchase should the desire arise.

Penwith Gallery is proud to display the works of so many talented individuals, and encourages guests to explore free of charge, a rarity in this day and age, as they believe that everyone should have the freedom to immerse themselves in the world of art and all its forms. Whilst you are being drawn into the creative minds of others, if you so choose, there is the opportunity to buy one or more pieces of artwork that take your fancy.

A sculpture and paintings on display at Penwith Gallery
Assemblage by David Kemp, paintings by Clive Blackmore and Rod Walker

The gallery’s curators understand the desire to adorn our walls and homes with the art that speaks to each of us on a unique level. Whether you are looking to liven up your current living space, or start from scratch with a new or second home here in Cornwall, they understand that owning a treasured piece of art is something that lasts a lifetime, and that is why they are proud to be a part of the Own Art scheme. Own Art is a national initiative, supported by the Arts Council England, that makes it easy and affordable for anyone and everyone to buy contemporary art. This initiative allows you to borrow as little as £100, and as much as £2,500, to purchase one or more artworks, with the onus of paying it back over the course of 10 months. There are minimal requirements for this, and as they allow you to take your artwork home that very same day, it’s a great way for art lovers and collectors to add to their collections straight away.

Here in Cornwall we are surrounded by some of the most remarkable homes, from cosy riverside retreats, to contemporary out-of-town dwellings. Developments have surged in recent years with those looking to reside here in the Duchy, and with this, new homeowners and second home buyers are looking to decorate their abodes with true Cornish art. This is a chance to bring the wilds of Cornwall inside the home, all whilst supporting local artists, which is exactly what Penwith Gallery has to offer. Perhaps a sculpture captures your eye, or a painting depicting the raw and rugged Cornish coast; Penwith Gallery has it all for you to choose from, especially with its rotating exhibitions, giving you something new to discover every few weeks.

'Assemblage', a sculpture by David Kemp
'Assemblage' by David Kemp

As you wind your way through the galleries, admiring the sculpture garden as you go, you come to appreciate the diverse array of paintings, drawings, ceramics, prints and sculptures that make up this wondrous spot. An ever-changing assemblage of successful contemporary artists alongside up-and-coming collectives. In regards to the latter, Penwith Gallery recently launched the Young Penwith Artists programme, where an artist within Cornwall aged 35 or under is given the incredible opportunity to exhibit at Penwith for a month-long show in August, the height of visitor season. This has become a very important part of the gallery’s regular programming, as it is a chance to promote the work of young local creatives, work that has perhaps been inspired by the PSA’s initial founding members.

Penwith Gallery believes in the lifecycle of art, from artists inspiring artists, to keeping their collections fresh and exciting. The PSA Members exhibition, hosted in their own gallery, changes every eight weeks, and these artists must be from within Cornwall, but the Associates can hail from anywhere in the world, allowing an influx of new inspirations to infuse the New Gallery and the Studio Gallery, which rotate every four weeks. Penwith Gallery also has rentable exhibition slots that are booked by artists who submit a proposal to the PSA Board. The board members are renowned for their creative eye, and their understanding of the art world especially in Cornwall, and they therefore like to have a varied programme combining seasoned professionals, and fresh new talent, all of which have to provide work that is for sale. It’s a great initiative for those wanting to purchase a one-off or a collectible.

Penwith Gallery is run to this day by practising artists that care deeply about the PSA’s legacy, a legacy that has inspired their own work from the beginning, and continues to draw out an artist in each of us. This community of creatives is what keeps the art world in St Ives, and across Cornwall, alive and thriving against a diminished government support network. It encourages children to experiment with paints, pencils and clay, to get their hands dirty and see what masterpieces they craft. The pedigree of work that is on display here is a testament to the stature that this gallery has earned here in Cornwall, a great inspiration for young creative minds to aspire to, and this is something that you can support. This summer, explore your creative side and take a visit to Penwith Gallery, immerse yourself in the colours, patterns and textures of Cornish life through the eyes of those that live on her lands, and perhaps you will come away with something that speaks to you.

Sutton Taylor, lustreware

Paintings and a sculpture on display at Penwith Gallery
Sculpture by Aidan Hicks, paintings by Anthony Frost and Margrit Clegg

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