Sun, sand, and men in bow ties: St Ives was once awash with grotty shops, but all that is changing since the Tate Gallery arrived, says Susan Marling
Before the Tate happened, Keith Varnals, who owns the Regent Hotel, was in despair as he watched 'one grotty shop after another' opening in the town. 'There was a lot of drinking on the front, a rough element came in, the place stank of fried food.' Now you now have to book a table in restaurants that serve monkfish with pancetta, mullet with bouillabaisse sauce, where the old green glass float hanging in a fishing net decoration has been replaced with whitewashed walls and the Mediterranean look.
Suddenly St Ives has become a place where people dressed in navy blue Breton jumpers are buying the sort of things you'd expect to find in York or Cambridge or Hampstead (designer knitwear, Celtic jewellery). As a result, trade in the town is up by more than 5 per cent. Keith says there's enormous pressure on the still-scruffy traders to take down their 'garish signs' and join the boom.
Four new commercial art galleries have opened. John Sager, who runs the lifeguard service on Porthmeor Beach, says the waterfront cafes (which now serve bistro food and big overflowing crab sandwiches on nutty bread) are 'a meeting place for the two cultures in St Ives - with surfers in turned-down wet suits at one end and art lovers in bow ties down the other'.
Everyone remarks on the surfboard rack in the entrance to the gallery, but Mike Tooby, its curator, knows that he must make it as accessible as possible to the whole community. It's already too easy to read St Ives as a divided town with Porthmeor Beach for the Tate-loving middle classes on one side of the headland and Porthminster Beach for the rest on the other. Gallery staff do their missionary work in hotels locally. You'll find them like monks preaching the word in bars about painting, sculpture and pottery in Cornwall and, especially, about the brilliant post- war years which brought together Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson, Bernard Leach, Peter Lanyon, Roger Hilton, Terry Frost, John Wells and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and made the name St Ives an internationally accepted synonym for Modern British Art.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, now into her eighties, is still painting in a tall, white studio on Porthmeor Beach. She likes the new building, but is under no illusions about the popularity of what's inside. 'British people are much more resistant to ideas in art than the Germans or other Europeans. The British want a painting to be what they know - an apple or a teapot and it must be their apple and their teapot. I think it's for that reason that people talk so much about the building itself - more than the work, they are interested in the gallery architecture and the cafeteria on that lovely flat roof.'
Despite this British queasiness in the face of abstraction, the local commercial galleries are on a roll, selling contemporary work to a mainly British clientele for the first time in years. Bob Devereux, who came to St Ives in the Sixties 'because the place felt like an enormous art school', and who supported himself collecting deckchair money at one impecunious stage in his career, now runs the Salthouse Gallery. 'The ripple effect of the Tate is very strong - people are coming here now and buying pictures as part of their holiday. And the smaller public galleries have had a tremendous boost.'
There is also what Patrick Heron calls 'the pulling in of a new generation of artist by this marvellous magnet'. At the last count there were 250 serious artists working in west Cornwall. That's without the New-Agers and fringe people who hang out in St Ives in summer.
'The irony is,' says Mr Devereux, 'that when the Tate was first mooted there were plenty of local people who would rather have had a swimming pool. They couldn't see how a gallery would improve their business. Who on earth would want to come and see modern art? When it opened, the Tate had the bright idea of sticking a little badge on every visitor. So that when the shopkeepers began to see the number of badges and Tate carrier bags in the street, they were astonished.'
Kenny Messenger, who owns a leather and fancy goods shop in St Ives, admits he was one of the doubting Thomases. Now that he's seen the gallery bring a thousand people into the town in February, he's cashing in. 'Anything you can do to lengthen the season in a seaside town is good. Of course, some of the people in the town who backed the Tate were the same ones who objected to the plan to build a marina across at Hayle - so they only want the things here that suit them. Also I think the gallery ought to be free (entrance is pounds 2.50) but there's no doubt that it's brought a different kind of person into the town. And if we continue to do well, we should get our pool before too long, just the same.'
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