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

Marcus Field has just spent his second holiday in a year in the West Country. His usual haunts have been northern Italy and the Peloponnese but now he finds himself something of a late convert to the Cornish coast. He was drawn by the opening of the Tate Gallery in St Ives: 'I came first last October because I'd read about the new building. Here was a major cultural institution but in a place where you could have a holiday, too. We did a lot of the galleries, the coastal path and loved it enough to come back and take a cottage this summer.' St Ives has been delivered from the slow roll downmarket of so many seaside towns by the pounds 3.3m Tate Gallery which, since it opened last summer, has attracted 210,000 visitors, three times the predicted number. To Mike Foxley, the tourism officer for west Cornwall, the gallery comes as 'a godsend'. So far this summer Mike's team has counted eight Norwegian cruise ships unloading passengers for a day or two in St Ives to see the Tate, the Leach Pottery and the Hepworth studio and sculpture garden.

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.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment
Lou Reed distorted the truth about his upbringing, and since his death in 2013, biographers and memoirists have added to the myths
musicThe truth about Lou Reed's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths
News
people
News
Ed Miliband received a warm welcome in Chester
election 2015
Life and Style
Apple CEO Tim Cook announces the Apple Watch during an Apple special even
fashionIs the Apple Watch for you? Well, it depends if you want it for the fitness tech, or for the style
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

    £18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

    £16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

    Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

    £18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

    Day In a Page

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own