Slingin’ Mud in St. Ives

The charming seaside town of St. Ives, which sits on the Atlantic side of the southern tip of Cornwall, England, has been an artists’ colony since the 1870’s, when the railroad arrived. Suddenly, St. Ives was linked to London, and many urban artists hopped on board, drawn to St. Ives because of its luminous Mediterranean light.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler was one of the a few trailblazing painters to visit St. Ives in the 1880’s.  By 1890, dozens of other artists were making regular visits to the town, which had blossomed into an artists’ colony and cultural hub.

An artistic revival after World War I drew a second generation of artists, including potter Bernard Leach.  Born in Hong Kong, Leach studied etching at the London School of Art, then moved to Japan to teach. It was there, after participating in a tea ceremony and raku firing, that he discovered a passion for pottery.  Leach then became an apprentice with Kenzan, the Japanese master potter.

Leach brought his knowledge and skill to St. Ives in 1920, where he set up a studio with his friend Shoji Hamada on the outskirts of town. For over 50 years, the studio, which had a wood-fired Japanese climbing kiln, drew thousands of visiting potters and students, including some of the most famous, accomplished potters of the twentieth century.  Leach’s studio was the epicenter of the western art pottery world, a perfect blend of Eastern and Western philosophies, styles and techniques.  The work produced by Leach and his fellow potters at the studio fetch premium prices in the art market today.

Leach died in 1979, but his wife Janet (also a gifted potter), worked in the studio until her death in 1997.  The studio, which recently underwent an extensive restoration, is now open to the public as a working pottery, gallery, and shop, and is managed by the Bernard Leach Trust.

Art isn’t the only reason people flock to the town, although it certainly helps its allure. St. Ives’ picturesque setting, crescent-shaped Porthmeor beach and promenade, and the hundreds of lovely cottages that cling to its hillsides continue to draw thousands of tourists today.  The rugged, sandy trail of the famous Cornish Coastal path is just from downtown, where dozens souvenir shops, art galleries, cafes and restaurants compete for visitors’ attention and wallets.. Quaint bed and breakfasts and lovely hotels are abundan, but rooms are hard to come by in the middle of summer.  As always, it’s usually best to visit in the off-season, when it will be you and the seagulls, alone on the beach.

It’s certainly easy to see why Leach, and the hundreds of artists before and after him, chose to create in St. Ives.

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