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Listed Building
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Statutory Address:

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

Cornwall (Unitary Authority)
St. Ives
National Grid Reference:
SW 51789 40868




II* A complex of artists' studios, with pilchard curing cellars below, and two former fishermen's houses (13 and 15 Back Road West). The buildings date from the early and late C19, with further studios constructed circa 1900; the cellars incorporate part of Smeaton's sea wall of circa 1760-80. The buildings are of two storeys with attics and cellars.

MATERIALS: The buildings are constructed from a mixture of granite and blue elvan rubble, part rendered, some concrete mass walling, and some timber-framed studios. The roofs are of grouted scantle slates, some covered in bitumen, with brick stacks.

PLAN: The buildings are constructed around a courtyard, and over four levels; there are pilchard cellars on the ground floor to the north, set directly onto Porthmeor Beach, with some former net lofts and some purpose-built artists' studios above; there are two fishermen's cottages to the south facing onto Back Road West.

EXTERIOR: The elevation to Back Road West presents a stuccoed range, in three parts. The first is a three-bay range set back and down from the street, behind a low wall, with a loft door at first-floor level, six-over-six sash windows and paired entrance doors to the ground floor, set under a shallow-pitched roof, beyond which runs a ramp leading down to the cellars below. Next is a pair of cottages (13 & 15 Back Road West), a three-bay range, with a mixture of two-over-two and six-over-six sash windows, full dormers and paired central doorways. To the east, set slightly back, is a similar three-bay range with an external timber staircase leading to a loft door on the first floor. The inner courtyard has a mixture of buildings with elevations variously in granite rubble, render and slate hanging, with sash windows and stairs to the first floor studios. The rear elevation is directly on to Porthmeor Beach. The lower courses are the late-C18 sea wall, with later, regular door openings for the fish cellars, now partially blocked to create small windows. Above these are five bays each with large, multi-paned studio windows. There are various skylights, and the western end has two tile-hung hipped dormers to the attic studios.

INTERIOR: There are four separate fish cellars in the lower ground floor, two of which retain concrete brine tanks for salting pilchards. The main cellar is very large, with uprights supporting the floors and partitions above made from iron water pipes reused from local mines, and very long timber beams apparently re-used from ships. There is a trapdoor remaining between one of the cellars and the studio above, which was originally a net loft. The cellars are still in use by fishermen. Above, there is a complex of artists' studios, of various sizes, some of which were formerly net lofts, converted to or constructed as studios from the 1880s to the mid-C20. They have exposed timber roofs and a variety of walling, including timber framing and mass concrete. The central studios were created from a single large studio constructed in the 1890s, with wide and high king-post roofs and large, multi-paned windows overlooking the beach. The eastern range is occupied largely by the St Ives School of Painting, with a large studio at first floor level, and another studio below, with offices to the ground floor, occupying what was formerly a pair of cottages fronting the street. The offices retain some evidence of their former domestic use, including a timber fireplace surround and small cast-iron range, together with some C19 joinery and doors, one with coloured margin glazing.

SOURCES: J Ferguson, Pilchard Seine Fishery of St Ives: report for the St Ives Old Cornwall Society (2002) 17-18 David Tovey, Pioneers of St Ives at Home and Abroad (1889-1914) (2008) Ben Tufnell, On the Very Edge of the Ocean: The Porthmeor Studios and Painting in St Ives (2007)

HISTORY: Before the mid-C18, the area above Porthmeor Beach had not been developed, its potential limited by quantities of wind-blown sand. It had been in casual use by fishermen for net drying and mending, rope walks and other associated work. The renowned civil engineer John Smeaton, FRS (1724-1792), often regarded as the father of civil engineering, was called in to design improvements to the town and harbour, which included a sea wall along the whole of Porthmeor Beach. Recent research shows that this was constructed in the period 1762-82. The building of the wall allowed the expansion of St Ives in the early C19, a time when the fishing industry which was the bedrock of the town's economy was becoming industrialised, with ever-larger scale works growing up. A wide range of large fish cellars, net works, rope works and ancillary trades were built to the north of Back Lane. The earliest buildings on this site were constructed by 1811, using the sea wall as their foundation and external wall to the north. This was a small cellar, probably used for cooperage rather than fish processing, which was leased to the Bolitho family, who ran a fish curing business in the town throughout the C19. Further cellars, with net lofts over, followed through the course of the C19, and much of the fabric of these buildings survives in the existing buildings.

By the later C19, the fishing industry in St Ives was beginning a marked and permanent decline; tourism, and alongside it the rise of the artistic community were becoming increasingly important. More and more old net lofts and stores were converted for use as artists' studios, including the old buildings at Porthmeor. The first artist's studio on the site was Studio 8, created from a net loft in 1885/6 by the painter Howard Butler, who rented the studio and the right to add a skylight. Three additional studios had been built by 1890, along the eastern side. In around 1895, another major construction phase took place: the fish cellars were partly rebuilt, and fitted with large concrete tanks for the curing of pilchards; and new walls were built at first floor level using mass concrete, to create further studio space.

The 1895 scheme appears to have been designed specifically as artists' studios, with fish cellars below. There were associated alterations to the older central and eastern ranges, with the latter being raised in height by two floors. The new studios can be clearly identified - four were rented out at £10 each in 1898 (Studios 1-4), and another at £25. This large studio, (now Studios 5-7) was the domain of Julius Olsson, a marine painter who was inspired by the views over Porthmeor Beach from the studios. It seems likely that he had some part in commissioning this studio, if not more of the complex, because he opened a School of Painting that year, and advertisements for the School indicate that a studio was available in case of poor weather. Olsson became a successful painter who rose to national prominence, becoming a Royal Academician (RA) in 1920. He was at the heart of a group of established artists in St Ives, all of whom occupied studios in the Porthmeor complex. There he opened his school of painting, with Louis Grier, teaching plein-air painting on the broad beach below the studios. Although Olsson had moved on from the studios by 1907, his work had set the tone for all the artists who followed; the school was attended by many who went on to become key figures in the colony of artists in the town, and rose to national significance, such as John Anthony Park and Borlase Smart. The school played a key role in the early development of the group, and the emphasis on plein-air painting strongly influenced the particular type of work created there.

The years between the wars saw the studios occupied, but without the major figures and bustling painting school of the pre-war years. In 1938 Borlase Smart and Leonard Fuller set up the St Ives School of Painting in the Porthmeor Studios. The school was an immediate success attracting students from all parts of the United Kingdom, and abroad.

In 1939, the painter Ben Nicholson moved to St Ives with his wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, taking over Studio 5 at Porthmeor. These two, together with Bernard Leach (who had set up his pottery in 1920) were to form the nucleus of a modern art movement based on St Ives, which would achieve an international reputation within only a few years. Leonard Fuller and Borlase Smart were sympathetic to new ideas and welcomed newcomers to the colony; they invited Nicholson and Hepworth and, later, other younger artists to join the St Ives Society of Artists, which the men had founded. In 1948, the Porthmeor studios and fishermen's cellars were put up for sale. There was considerable concern among the artists, since the number of studios available in the town had dwindled from over 100 to just thirty-eight. With the aid of fundraising and an Arts Council grant, the studios were secured by the newly-created Borlase Smart Memorial Trust, and they continued to provide space for new generations of significant artists. Many important works from the 1950s by artists now known as the 'Middle Generation' were produced by long-standing occupants of the Porthmeor Studios, notably Patrick Heron, (who had moved into Ben Nicholson's former studio), Terry Frost and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. Their reputation grew as St Ives artists' works gained national prominence in the Festival of Britain and, subsequently, international recognition through touring exhibitions and links with New York which were largely fostered by Patrick Heron.

The St Ives School of Painting is still operating from the site, and the studios are fully occupied. Studio 5 is now reserved for the Artist in Residence at the Tate, whose opening of their St Ives gallery in the 1990s was a clear recognition of the national significance of painting in St Ives in the C19 and C20. Uniquely, the artists continue to work alongside fishermen, who still occupy the pilchard cellars as stores and shelters for the storage and repair of nets.

REASONS FOR DESIGNATION: Porthmeor Studios and pilchard cellars and 13 and 15 Back Road West are designated at Grade II*, for the following principal reasons: * The artists' studios were created from the 1880s by painters including Julius Olsson, since which time they have been occupied by a series of internationally-renowned artists whose work is intimately linked to St Ives * Artists including Ben Nicholson, Sir Terry Frost, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Patrick Heron have spent long periods working in the studios and are clearly identified with this site * All these artists are well-represented in national and international collections, and are primarily known for the work they made at St Ives, as part of the mid-C20 movement known as the St Ives school * The studios have been relatively little altered since their construction, and although they are not of great architectural interest, are invested with more than special historic interest through their long and intimate association with the artists who worked here throughout the C20 * The pilchard cellars incorporate a good deal of fabric from the early C19, and represent a rare and well-preserved survival of an industrial-scale fish-processing site of the period; they are still in use by fishermen for storage and the repair of nets * The juxtaposition of the fish cellars and the artists' studios clearly demonstrates how the decline in the fishing industry in this part of Cornwall was overtaken by new industries in the early C20, and adds to its claims to special interest * Nos 13 and 15 Back Road West, though forming part of the same complex and with some interconnecting fabric, are domestic dwellings which are of lesser interest than the studios and pilchard cellars, though they are still of special interest in the national context


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This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

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