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)

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

    £65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

    Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

    £15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

    Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

    £50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

    The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

    £27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas