ART / Led by kindly light: Long after the break-up of the St Ives 'school', John Wells and Denis Mitchell are still at work. Iain Gale met them

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In a famous letter of 1948, the painter John Wells posed one of the classic questions of abstract art: 'How can one paint the warmth of the sun, the sound of the sea?' For Wells, along with a few of his contemporaries, now celebrated as the St Ives 'school' of artists, part of the answer lay in the unique clarity of light and the untamed landscape of that remote area of south-west Cornwall.

The extraordinary light which drew the artists here still pours in through the tall window of the studio high above Newlyn harbour that Wells has shared with the sculptor Denis Mitchell since 1969. Sitting here, you quickly become aware that despite half a century of experimentation by the two artists, the answer to Wells's question remains intriguingly elusive. For, at the ages of 85 and 80 respectively, Wells and Mitchell, far from basking in nostalgia in this sleepy backwater are both still hard at work. Certainly the memories are here, but they do not stifle the creative impetus.

Although Wells is somewhat reticent about his recent work, which remains behind closed doors in his half of the shared studio, the evidence of Mitchell's abiding pursuit of the abstract aesthetic is all around. His forms range from the miniature precision of the bisected slate sphere Poljigga, made in 1990, to the monumental, glittering bronze corkscrew of Trewarveneth, which he finished earlier this year.

'I'm working in a number of different materials at the moment,' he enthuses, 'slate, wood and bronze. More bronzes because they're more bread and butter. I have a marvellous assistant, Tommy Rowe, who knows exactly what to do and never does anything without discussing it.' Mitchell appreciates the importance of a good sculptor's assistant more than most: for 11 years he was himself assistant to Barbara Hepworth at her studio in St Ives, now the Barbara Hepworth Museum.

'Eleven years was far too long really, but there was no work down here and there was no other way for me to make money. I went to work for Barbara in 1949, but I'd met her before that. In fact, I'd only just started to make sculptures myself before I went to Barbara. She was the big influence. Of course I was also very interested in Brancusi and Henry Moore.'

Something of the flavour of Brancusi is still perceptible in much of Mitchell's work. The polished simplicity of Sixties works like Porthcressa and Boscawen and the upward reaching spiral of his Zella sculptures seem in particular to echo the shining Thirties monoliths of the influential Romanian. But Mitchell's work is unmistakeably his own. 'Gradually I developed on my own, but the influence of Barbara was always quite strong. One day when I was staying with Pat (the painter Patrick Heron) in London he said: 'What are you doing for Barbara? Draw it for me.' And I found that I couldn't. I could only see it in the little areas that I'd been working on and I found that very odd. It was quite disturbing in a funny way - but in another it was rather a good defence against being more interested in the sculpture as a whole than in the work I was actually doing on it.'

Most of Mitchell's pieces are named after geographical locations in the landscape which has been his home for the last 55 years. He is vaguely dismissive of the artistic significance attached to the naming of abstract works: 'Barbara and Ben (Nicholson) tried using numbers as titles but that was useless. So I thought why not use place names? After all, the sculptures are associated in my mind with those places.' Such titles are, nevertheless, an indication of an approach firmly rooted in the artist's response to the landscape (although this is perhaps even more obvious in the work of his St Ives contemporaries Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton).

Mitchell makes frequent mention of other St Ives artists, as he feels it inappropriate to discuss his own work at length. 'A lot of them were very difficult. We had great rows but they didn't last. And they were usually about art. We had shows at the Castle Inn where my brother was the landlord. Even Ben (Nicholson) showed there. Everyone did. One or two of the artists gave their work in exchange for a drink.'

It is difficult, walking through St Ives today, to imagine the thriving artistic community that Mitchell describes. He is only too aware of its transformation over the last 20 years. 'What's happened to the town is absolutely disastrous. In Fore Street you had the bakers, the butchers and the ironmongers. Now it's all these tourist shops which close in the winter. You're walking through a dead town.' John Wells nods in agreement: 'It was lovely when it was really primitive. But today every little bay is full of bungalows. There are caravan parks everywhere. Of course you can still capture something of it if you go inland, but wherever they've had a chance to build they've done it. It's awful.'

Given this ravishment of the landscape that inspired so much art, the demise of the artistic community in St Ives does not particularly surprise either artist. Mitchell also conjectures that the very essence of the artist may have undergone a fundamental change: 'Certainly, there are a few younger artists down here, but there's a difference between them and us. We used to go to other peoples' studios and they would come to us. Today young artists never ask to come here to talk to us. We were breaking new ground then but we were still very friendly with the older traditional artists like John Park and used to visit their studios, just to talk. All the intellectual stuff around today isn't what we were about. When you come to think about it, none of us were really intellectual. We didn't push that side of it at all.' John Wells agrees: 'Ben wouldn't have had any of that rubbish.' 'Of course,' adds Mitchell, 'Barbara was quite intellectual. But Roger (Hilton) was all over the place. I had some good times with Roger. The fun was all part of it. When you met in a pub you did talk 'art', but not in the way they do today. You talked about what you were doing and maybe about what had gone wrong.'

Both artists, however, express a feeling of cautious optimism engendered by the news of the opening next year of the new St Ives Tate (see panel, below). 'You know, art is still alive down here,' says Mitchell. 'All we need is for someone with a little bit of energy to come down and make it exciting again.'

An exhibition of work from the 1980s and 1990s by Dennis Mitchell will be held at Falmouth Art Gallery from 14 Sept to 16 Oct. A wider-ranging retrospective can be seen at the Angela Flowers Gallery in London next Spring.

John Wells's work, Aspiring Forms, dating from 1950, is currently on show at the Tate Gallery, London.

(Photograph omitted)