A new exhibition in Skibbereen is just the latest instalment in a long history of cultural links between West Cork and Cornwall, writes Robert Harris
WEST meets West is an exhibition coming up at Uillinn in Skibbereen from 3 June to 8 July. It features the work of three contemporary Cornish artists: large paintings, huge pots and complex relief constructions that will complement each other and fill Uillinn’s large gallery spaces with colour and design.
I had the idea for the exhibition as I so disgusted by the antics of the UK during and following the Brexit vote, that I was determined to work to bring European communities back together. In this case it’s the meeting of two ‘wests’ — Cornwall, the westernmost county in England — and Cork. Both these localities have strong histories of attracting and supporting communities of artists who have made major impacts on the national and international art scenes.
Why Cornwall and Cork? Historic links between the two geographical areas go back a very long way. Starting between three and four thousand years ago, copper was mined on Mount Gabriel and was mixed with tin from Cornwall to produce a ‘supermetal’, bronze. This material was hard enough to make tools and weapons — therefore a practical and high status commodity. Obviously intellectual relations between the west of England and the west of Ireland were well enough advanced to set up regular trading between the two outposts in those far-off days.
We must not overlook the incredible debt that Cornwall owes to West Cork, because we gave them their patron saint — Saint Piran. The fact that the gift wasn’t intentional shouldn’t delay us too long: according to legend, the ‘heathen Irish’ tied Cape Clear’s saint, whose Irish name was Ciarán, to a millstone and threw him over a cliff. Instead of meeting his watery doom he miraculously surfed the millstone across to the Cornish coast, where his landing place — Perranzabuloe — is named after him, and where he is royally celebrated on March 5th every year.
Apart from metal mining and saints, another important connection is shared fishing grounds. From medieval times onwards (and perhaps before) the Cornish fishing fleets set out to follow the pilchard and herring shoals across to Roaringwater Bay. This is really where art comes into our story, as it was the way of life of some of the Cornish fishing communities that attracted artists to that western County of England in the late nineteenth century.
Newlyn (now Britain’s largest fishing port) was an early focus, and a young man from Dublin, Stanhope Alexander Forbes, an up and coming young painter in the plein air tradition, made his home there in 1884 and stayed for life. Forbes found in Cornwall a true ‘rural idyll’: an unspoiled countryside where life was simply lived, and a rugged coastline with a magical quality of light.
Known as the ‘Father of the Newlyn School’, he gathered around him like-minded artists who recorded (and perhaps romantically idealised) the way of life of the communities there, and that special quality of the light, in canvasses which are highly admired and respected today.
On the other side of the peninsula, St Ives gathered a colony of artists from the early years of the twentieth century. The names include Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon and Breon O’Casey (son of playwright Sean). Lanyon was one of the most influential artists in the St Ives School during his working life.
He was a native of the town and became both a teacher and an artist. Tony O’Malley (1913 – 2003) received his only formal art education from Peter Lanyon and, after Lanyon’s death in 1964, O’Malley dedicated all his work to his friend and mentor.
Irish sculptor Conor Fallon (1939 – 2007) was also inspired by Lanyon’s work and spent some years in St Ives before moving back to Kinsale. Lanyon claimed that he sought in his work to ‘get under the skin’ of his native county and explored it by going underground in the mines and flying over it in a glider. Lanyon died as a result of a gliding accident in 1964; the work of one of his sons — the late Matthew Lanyon — will feature in the West meets West exhibition in Skibbereen.
In a clear example of ‘parallel universe’ we find that an artists’ colony was established in West Cork in the late 1950s and 60s. Here the artists came because of the perceived simple lifestyle, but also because of cheap property and acceptance (generally) by the local communities in and around Ballydehob, Skibbereen and Kinsale.
Artists continue to thrive in both ‘wests’ — but the opening of the Tate Gallery in St Ives in 1993 has generated a burgeoning of very profitable ‘art tourism’ in Cornwall — the town is bustling every week of the year with commercial galleries, guest houses and high quality eateries flourishing.
This is something that could — and should — also be happening in Co Cork. I lived in Newlyn for 30 years and I’m confident that this exhibition will lead the way: planning is already in the pipeline for an exhibition of the work of West Cork-based artists which will be travelling to Cornwall next year.
West meets West opens on Friday June 2 at 6pm at Uillinn: West Cork Arts Centre, in Skibbereen
Cornwalls finest: Exhibiting at Uillinn
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