Tales of the ocean

Words by Lowenna merritt


Porthminster Gallery’s ‘Sea Stories’ exhibition tells the vivid, intertwining tales of the movement, mood and emotive qualities of the Cornish ocean.

As spring blooms, skies get lighter, the ocean gets bluer and Cornwall buzzes with a unique aquatic energy. Porthminster Gallery celebrates this elemental magic in its latest exhibition Sea Stories this June. The exhibition will showcase an array of paintings, prints and ceramics by artists whose works tell, through original and perceptive visual language, the fascinating tales of the crashing seas and rocky shorelines of west Cornwall.


Paint is a highly expressive medium and is perfect for recreating the wild, unpredictable movement of the sea and the rich textures of the coastline. Sea Stories features work from some of the finest Cornish painters, including Mike Bernard RI, Andrew Bird, Ian Harrold, Martyn Perryman and Jenny Hirst, all using the dynamic expression of paint to depict their lived experience of the ocean. Andrew Bird’s large abstract canvases use shape, colour and space to convey the hydraulic energy of the sea. His style of abstraction and metaphor invites the viewer to unpack the painting’s deeper meaning, slowly uncovering the story of his relationship to the ocean. The end result is a euphoria much like what the sea can invoke in people, matched by his bold, contrasting colours and dizzying layouts.

These pieces will be displayed alongside Ian Harrold’s smaller, intricate oil paintings in an intriguing but complementary dialogue. Harrold’s paintings are inspired by poetry, in particular The Seasons of North Cornwall by Charles Causley, which depicts a longing for the sea. His collection of paintings ‘Beyond the Sea Roads’ are an ode to this separation he similarly experienced during lockdown, being so close yet just too far away from the shores he loves.

“In normal times,” Harrold tells, “many hours would have been spent amongst the rocks of hidden coves, perhaps gazing out to sea, wavelets lapping around my feet, eddies swirling around my toes in sharp, cool sand and shingle. This year so far my feet have remained dry.” Harrold’s work therefore tells the visceral story of love and loss that the ocean can symbolise, and the emotional connection we have with it which appears to stem from an inbuilt instinct. “In Cornwall, one is never far from the sea and its presence is always there, even when we can’t see it... I think we have all longed for the sea.”


Martyn Perryman’s paintings tell a more physical tale, conveying the rich haze of blue which envelopes our vision when we are by the shore. “I have always been fascinated by horizons,” Perryman says, “and tend to focus almost exclusively upon this subject. This is largely due to the meditative essence they bring in their immutable calmness. My intention is to create paintings which reproduce the peacefulness and clarity of mind that can be achieved when looking out to a horizon; free from the pressure and visual clutter of urban life.” Perryman’s intensely rich and vivid paintings will feature alongside Jenny Hirst’s more delicate and spontaneous landscapes. Hirst’s paintings tell a narrative of the relationship between mood and movement, and how this is particularly noticeable in the landscapes of Cornwall which are ever-changing with the weather, time and tides. “I have tried to capture the different moods of the water, the coastline and the skies, the casting of light and shadows on the water and the sweeping sands disappearing and re-appearing with the ebb and flow of the tide,” Hirst says. Through a combination of layering, collage, drawing and scraping into the canvas, Hirst creates an emotional map of the scene which captures the liveliness of the ocean itself.

The exhibition also contains mixed-media artists, who experiment with form, medium and texture to capture the dynamism of the Cornish coast. Mike Bernard’s work begins as on-the-spot sketches, which are then built with layers of paper collage, newspapers, tissue, leaflets and magazines, infiltrated with strokes of acrylic ink. Bernard tells of the final stages of the process, which bring the scene to life. “From this state of chaos, I endeavour to define the subject through various drawing techniques, to a finished stage where the subject has recognizable passages, but at the same time retain a semi-abstract, impressionistic feel, engaging the viewer’s imagination.” Bernard’s chaotic calm will be paired with the prints of Trevor Price, which draw on the humour, tenderness and form of preceding artists such as Pablo Picasso and Ben Nicholson. His vivid linocuts rely on shape, perspective and depth of field to tell the story of a scene, such as gazing from a flower-pot lined window out onto the shining moon above the ocean beyond in his piece ‘Moonlight over the Bay’. Both artists’ work draw you in amongst the scene, causing you to feel the presence of the surrounding houses, streets and ornaments that decorate the pieces.


Two highly anticipated artists also featured are Anne Barrell and Craig Underhill, whose hand-built ceramics merge the emotion and secrets of the west Cornwall coastline into beautifully crafted physical artefacts. Inspired by the famous St Ives mariner and ‘primitive’ painter, Alfred Wallis, Anne Barrell’s historical style rum cups, pedestal bowls, platters and jugs use the unique sgraffito technique of scratching through the surface of the slips before firing. The end result is characterful and charming pieces which merge maritime history with current lived experience, showing the timeless and everlasting culture of the seaside. Contrasting with Barrell’s historical take on the Cornish coast are Craig Underhill’s modern and enigmatic ceramics, which give shape to the elemental structures of the shoreline. “I enjoy the challenge and rewards of exploring the unfamiliar, of making new shapes and searching for new mark-making techniques,” Underhill says of his hand-built slab forms on which he builds layers of engobes, slips and underglaze colours. The final product is playful, visceral and striking – pieces which are complemented by his abstract seafront paintings. This collection of dramatically different and dynamic artists and styles are unified by one thing – their love of the ocean and the stories it tells. The exhibition, which will be held at the gallery’s new home at 22 Fore Street, St Ives – runs from 1st May to 26th June and is a visual replication of those stories, inviting viewers to view the ocean imaginatively, playfully and from a deep, emotional perspective.



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