The iconic St Ives artists’ studios and pilchard cellars
Porthmeor Studios in St Ives is one of the oldest artists’ studios in the UK. Just a stone’s throw from the Atlantic Ocean, this historic building has hosted some of the most renowned artists working the UK, including Julius Olsson, Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham.
Many of the studios have huge windows looking out across the beach towards the ocean; it’s hard to imagine a more inspirational space. Porthmeor Studios also represents a unique way of life, as painters and fishermen have worked alongside each other here since the 1880s – a tradition that continues to this day.
The building was constructed in the early 1800s, originally for the fishing industry, with net lofts, fish cellars and salt houses for curing pilchards. Artists began colonising Porthmeor from the mid-1880s, drawn to St Ives by the special quality of light. They started using the net lofts to paint in, before building studios above the fishermen’s cellars. St Ives fishermen still use these cellars for setting nets, repairing their gear and storing equipment, and their doors are still painted a characterisitc green to differentiate them from the blue doors to the studios above.
The St Ives School of Painting was established at Porthmeor by Borlase Smart in the 1930s, adding to the thriving artistic community. In 1939, prompted by the outbreak of the Second World War, Ben Nicholson and his wife Barbara Hepworth moved to St Ives. Nicholson worked from Studio 5, which he later handed on to Patrick Heron. Unlike the other studios, it doesn’t have a sea view, but the huge skylight maximises the amount of light that filters, making it ideal for painting and exhibiting.
St Ives continued to attract artists, with many taking up studios at Porthmeor. By the 1940s, the coastal town had become a centre for abstract and modern art, and by around 1950, several younger artists had joined them, who became known as the St Ives School.
By 2008, as a result of years of exposure to wind and rain whipping across the Atlantic, the building was in desperate need of repair. After successfully securing funding, Porthmeor Studios underwent a £4 million renovation project, completed in 2012. Undertaking work in a Grade II listed building, particularly one with so much history as Porthmeor, is no mean feat. MJ Long from Long & Kentish architects developed a plan, which allowed the building to be sympathetically restored, keeping as much of the fabric and character of the studios as possible. Wood panels with layers of paint marks created by decades of previous occupants were put back in their original position after work had been completed.
As part of the renovation project, some of the larger spaces were divided to create additional studio space. A new, dedicated space was created for the School of Painting, and a lift was installed to help improve access, securing Porthmeor’s future for generations to come.
Our Modern Creative for this month, painter Felicity Mara, is based at Porthmeor. We shot our latest collection in her studio.