Christopher Wood

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives


In Tate St Ives

Christopher Wood 1901–1930
Oil paint on canvas board
Support: 378 × 458 mm
frame: 485 × 560 × 66 mm
Presented by Sarah and Alan Bowness in honour of Mark Osterfield 2018


Porthmeor Beach, St Ives 1928 depicts a small section of Porthmeor beach, a long sandy strip on the Atlantic coast of St Ives in south-west Cornwall. Less than half of the picture’s surface portrays the sand itself, the rest of the composition being devoted to houses, pathways and people on the streets behind, beneath a small portion of sky. The view shows Wood turning his back on the coast and sea. Instead it depicts everyday life on the bordering pathways which connect the beach to the town. Large grey rocks occupy the sandy terrain in the foreground. The sand especially has been painted in broad, dynamic brushstrokes of thickly applied paint, evocative of the malleability of sand. In the middle-ground a small figure wearing a black hat crosses the back of the beach, walking towards stone steps to the street above. Other figures populate the streets above, so that the scene seems to show quiet everyday activity. Two female figures are shown walking along the top of the wall on a pathway between the beach and a grassy bank that would lead them towards the town and harbour. Another female figure walks on a further raised path in front of some houses. A bright cream house has been painted with two black squares for windows, a black rectangle for a door and a triangular roof outlined with thick red lines. To a side of this house another smaller figure in black sits on a horse-led vehicle which seems to move towards an opening in the brown wall on the right-hand edge of the painting to the streets behind. Chimneys high in the distance also set this scene within the wider town. The sky of the scene is painted in a light blue-green characteristic of depictions of St Ives.

Porthmeor Beach, St Ives is one of a series of works made around 1928, when Wood returned to St Ives, having first visited two years earlier in 1926. His friendship with the artists Ben and Winifred Nicholson (1894–1982; 1893–1981) had developed between 1926 and 1927, and Wood had visited their home in Cumberland the following spring. That summer he joined the Nicholsons on a visit to Cornwall, where they were staying with friends Marcus and Irene Brumwell near Helford. In late August or early September Wood visited St Ives with Ben, when they first met the untutored painter Alfred Wallis (1855–1942), an event recorded retrospectively in Andrew Lanyon’s painting The Discovery of Alfred Wallis by Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood on a Visit to St Ives in 1928 – 50 Years After – 1978−9 (Tate T15121). Wallis lived and worked on Back Road West, a small road that runs behind Porthmeor Beach not far from the scene in this painting.

Shortly after, both Wood and the Nicholsons rented rooms in St Ives. Joined now by Frosca Munster, Wood rented Meadow Cottage behind Porthmeor Beach. From there he entered an intense period of work characterised by a sense of enjoyment in observing the life of ordinary people in St Ives. Other works made during this stay include Cornish Fishermen, the Quay, St Ives 1928 (Aberdeen Art Gallery and Museums) and The Fisherman’s Farewell 1928 (Tate T07994), which has been read as a portrait of the Nicholsons with their son Jake. Inscriptions on the reverse of Porthmeor Beach, St Ives show that the work was owned by Ben Nicholson while he was living at Chy-an-Kerris, his home in St Ives between 1942 and 1955. Another such work is Wood’s Untitled (Helford) c.1926 (Tate T15120).

Further reading
Richard Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London 1995.
Katy Norris, Christopher Wood, London 2016.

Rachel Rose Smith
July 2018

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