‘All this tomfoolery about scenery’: a new look at the artists of St Ives, with Michael Bird

Splendidly illustrated talk with author & broadcaster Michael Bird from his book, The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time


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St Ives is unique in British art history. It is the only small town in Britain ever to have gained international fame in art. Michael Bird will re-examine the extraordinary and rich history of art in St. Ives and ask whether it was a real crucible of modern art or just a provincial sideshow.

The roll-call of fantastic artists who lived in or passed through St. Ives is tremendously impressive: Ben Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Bernard Leach, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo, Barnes-Graham, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton and many others. There was an extraordinary convergence of artistic talent and a wonderful outpouring of creative energy.

Michael breaks new ground in exploring connections - often unexpected - between the St Ives artists and wider contemporary developments in art and society.

His talk will focus on the work of individual artists such as Heron, Frost, Hilton and Sandra Blow. This was the era of Austerity, the Festival of Britain, the dawning awareness of American consumer culture, – a time of enormous creative release in Britain.

In Michael's telling these artists emerge as vivid and very different personalities, as often embroiled in conflict as in any shared artistic agenda.

Michael's connection to St Ives is a deep one. He moved to St Ives with his young family in 1994.

He met, interviewed and wrote about the artists who had made the area famous as a centre of international modern art between the 1940s and 1970s. Their memories of that time – the energy, ambition, craziness, and the sense of being part of a wider historical movement – seemed very different from the version told in exhibitions and art history books.

For Michael, writing The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time was an attempt to get closer to what was really going on in St Ives in the mid-20th century, when the town became in its way a unique artistic and social phenomenon. It was also, says Michael, ‘a tribute to the many layers and lives of a place that began for me as an adventure and ended up becoming home.’


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Michael Bird

Michael is a writer, art historian and radio broadcaster. He has written widely on modern British art, in particular, including monographs on the abstract painters Sandra Blow and Bryan Wynter, and the sculptor Lynn Chadwick. 100 Ideas that Changed Art – the subject of Michael’s previous talk at the Ebenezer – has been translated into eight languages. He is currently writing a children’s history of art, to be published by Laurence King in 2015.

Michael regularly presents features on BBC radio, most recently The Flower Fields, which explored the archaeology and actuality of flower-growing in Cornwall and was ‘Pick of the Day’ in the Daily Telegraph, The Times, Mail on Sunday, Sunday Times, Sunday Telegraph and Independent. He has written scripts for major museum projects, including the award-winning redevelopment of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, and new museums in Nigeria and Sweden. He is a visiting lecturer at Falmouth University.




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The St Ives Artists received terrific reviews: ‘A compelling story’ (Guardian), ‘A book of startling anecdotal richness’ (The Art Book), ‘A most enjoyable read’ (RA Magazine), ‘This book really draws you in and keeps you reading’ (Galleries).

"Michael Bird opens up new ground in exploring connections between the St. Ives artists and contemporary developments in society...For the first time this book integrates the St. Ives artists into the cultural narrative...the artists emerge as vivid and very different personalities.” (Helen Hoyle)

2014Martin Keeley