ART / A fine headstone for an artist's way of life: Andrew Graham-Dixon travels down to the new Tate Gallery in St Ives only to discover that the scenery upstages the art it once inspired

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THE NEW Tate St Ives has come in for a fair amount of misguided criticism, but perhaps the oddest reason so far given for disliking it is the fact that it only contains sufficient gallery space for the display of around 70 paintings and 20 sculptures. Only? 70 paintings and 20 sculptures from the St Ives school of timid English modernism should, surely, be enough for anyone. In fact, 70 paintings and 20 sculptures of any kind should amount to plenty for anyone - especially the kind of vagrant tourist visitor that a museum set in a holiday resort on the coast of Cornwall seems designed to attract - to look at with some degree of attentiveness in a single visit. The new museum should be commended, not criticised, for its modest scale.

There are plenty of other reasons not to dislike the Tate St Ives. Unlike other recent examples of Tate Gallery expansionism - the appalling Clore Gallery on Millbank, which does its best to muffle Turner's pictorial explosions with its Trust House Forte decor; or the scarcely better Tate Liverpool, with its cramped, low-ceilinged galleries, stunningly misconceived given the sheer scale of most of the contemporary art which it was designed to house - this is a reasonably attractive and spacious building which at least gives the impression that it wants to honour the spirit of the art that it contains.

Eldred Evans' and David Shalev's building necessarily echoes the shape of the gasworks that used to stand on the site but it also evokes the art that used to be made here: with its frequent juxtapositions of plane and curve, with its semi-circular sculpture court and its rotunda, with its gridded windows and porthole piercings, it looks like a Ben Nicholson relief crossed with a Barbara Hepworth Polo-mint sculpture and turned into a building. It is very (and very self-consciously) St Ives, this blend of the urban aesthetic of international modernism, 1930s-style, with an English Romantic sense of nature and the sublime; a building made of sphere and cube which harks back to Le Corbusier while confronting Porthmeor beach and, beyond, the vastness of Cornish sea and sky.

Whether it always works in favour of the art displayed is open to question. The most striking gallery is what the plan refers to as the Lower Terrace, where paintings hang on a curved wall facing a curved window that gives you the building's most panoramic view of the beach and the Atlantic. The pictures and sculptures exhibited here mostly look dumbfounded, outfaced by the competing grandeur of the natural world that the rhetoric of St Ives art says they succeeded in evoking: the message of this display, which is particularly cruel to Barbara Hepworth and the consistently mediocre John Wells, is that they did not.

There are one or two exceptions to the rule. Ben Nicholson's sparsest reliefs are still among the most impressive works made by any English artist in the first half of this century: cool, cool evocations of immensity, stark and clear-eyed and unsabotaged by the usual English (and frequent St Ives) preference for the colours of mud. Peter Lanyon, maybe the most convincing of all the St Ives artists and just about the only one to have been born in Cornwall, is represented on the Lower Terrace by Thermal, one of many pictures he painted after he had developed his obsession with gliding, a memorial to the experience of swooping and climbing silently through turbulent air above the Cornish coast. The picture lives well with the grand view that it faces, being curiously bold for a St Ives painting, like a pastoral version of a Kline or De Kooning: its volatile forms, misty exhalations of white paint brushed suddenly over spreading expanses of blue, suggest the corresponding volatility of nature, sea boiling into cloud, air and water becoming one.

Lanyon, whose finest works on view here are also the finest works in the entire museum (his much earlier Porthleven and Headland dominate the first gallery - tragic landscapes, one like a great tumbling crucifixion, the other like a human skeleton, stone painted like bone), was the Icarus of St Ives. He died in a gliding accident in 1964, and it was more than a personal tragedy: virtually the only artist in the St Ives colony who was capable of making St Ives art more than an English footnote to the braver and more compelling modernisms of elsewhere was gone, just when he was making his best work.

The art of St Ives should not be overestimated, which is another reason to be thankful for the low-key elegance of this building (somewhat spoiled, unfortunately, by the detailing: the bleached wood finish of the stair balustrades and the would-be rustic tiled floors look like a Smallbone kitchen designer's idea of St Ivism). This is a museum to drop into, perhaps to find one or two good things, but not to take too terribly seriously. It speaks of a certain local pride in local achievement, but is never grandiose, which is just as well. England would be a far more pleasant place if there were more civic museums like this one.

To see the art of St Ives gathered together in one place, the place where it was made, is to see both its charm and its perennial second- rateness. Patrick Heron, who was commissioned to design a stained glass window for the entrance lobby, has seized the opportunity to demonstrate that he will never be more than an artist struck dumb by his inability to match the art of his great hero, Matisse. His contribution here (like most of the Heron paintings dotted around the display) is a beautiful piece of decoration.

The artist whose reputation is likely to suffer most from the increased prominence given to St Ives by the new Tate is Barbara Hepworth, once described by the ex-director of the Tate, Alan Bowness (whose brainchild the new museum was), as 'one of the greatest sculptors of the 20th century'. Well, she was certainly one of the most sentimental. Two Forms, the first Hepworth (of many) that visitors come across, is both inert and saccharine, a pairing of burnished carved stones that incline towards one another on a plinth. Hepworth's reputation can be guarded (and usually has been) by careful editing of her oeuvre. She was temporarily interesting as a sculptor in wood - her small stringed sculptures, all gentle incline and hollow, are abstract landscapes with a certain grace and sensuousness - but the rest of her work was, to be blunt about it, dreadful. There is no avoiding this in St Ives, since a ticket to the new Tate also guarantees entry to the Barbara Hepworth Museum a few hundred yards away, where a garden full of the large, grandiose, resoundingly hollow bronzes resembling blown-up jewellery designs that she and her studio mass- produced in her later years is revelatory.

The most unfortunate details of the display at the Tate St Ives are the explanatory captions hung beside every work. This is a very Anglo- Saxon, very Protestant museum device (it has its origins in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art), a crass diminishment of the visual given an educative pretext. What it implies is that images cannot (perhaps that ought to be 'should not') speak for themselves, and it turns the museum into a place where images are forever being supplanted or upstaged by texts. The caption accompanying a small and vivid Nicholson abstract is almost as big as the picture it comments upon with such comical inconsequence: 'Nicholson felt very strongly that small works should be respected as much as large ones. He believed that museums and galleries should show small works as part of an artist's output if this was an important facet of the artist's work.' Couldn't the picture have made the point on its own?

These captions, which are for the most part deeply patronising, suggest that the Tate St Ives sees itself as an outpost of high culture in the plebeian wasteland of Cornish summer holiday territory - that it expects its audience to be people who have wandered in off the beach with little or no genuine interest in art and who can only be reached if they are talked down to. This runs counter to the rhetoric that lies behind the St Ives Tate, brave talk of regenerating the local arts scene, of making the town again, as it once was, a focus of English avant-garde painting and sculpture. But of course that will never happen. When Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood first came across St Ives in 1928, the town must have seemed like a perfect retreat from the increasingly urban 20th century. Now it is nothing of the kind. Artists in search of the kind of retreat that St Ives once represented will find somewhere else and, when tourism arrives there, they will again - as they always have - move on. The Tate St Ives, like all museums, has something of the mortuary about it, declaring the death of what it celebrates. But it is a very pleasant mortuary, and the view from the terraces of the coffee shop on the top floor is stunning.

(Photographs omitted)