Modernism has melted at the edges: the gallery grows out of the cliffside: Jan Dalley reports on the new Tate due to open in St Ives and the colony of 20th-century artists who inspired it

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'ARTIST at work inside' proclaims a sign on one of the dozens of small galleries in St Ives. What you find inside is more reminiscent of Woolworth than of Hepworth, but never mind: they already report an increase in visitors, and everyone is asking about the new Tate Gallery which is soon to open near by.

The St Ives Tate is the second offspring of the London parent, but, unlike its sister in Liverpool, it will be devoted to the works of 20th-century artists of its local area. 'Something special happened in Cornwall, especially after the war,' says Nicholas Serota, the Tate's director.

The first of the 'St Ives School' - Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, the Russian refugee Naum Gabo - moved to the town in 1939. Bernard Leach had established his pottery there in 1920. In the Forties and Fifties, younger artists - Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and Roger Hilton among them - arrived to swell a growing colony.

Artists have been coming to the area for 200 years, and for the same reasons: the sea, the wild landscape, above all the startling light. The point about making a gallery here, says Mike Tooby, its curator, is that visitors 'can relate qualities in the landscape to qualities in the painting'.

Mr Serota hopes that concentrating on post-1925 exhibits 'will encourage a more open mind about 20th-century art. It's abstract, yes, but it grows out of the landscape, grows out of the light'

St Ives is a small, absurdly pretty fishing town, with narrow twisting streets and neat tea-shops, not a place you'd expect to find any architecture to ruffle the sensibilities of Prince Charles. Yet when the Prince officially opens the new Tate on 23 June, he will walk under just the kind of cool and glassy portico that usually brings him out in spots.

Perhaps the dramatically beautiful setting will provide some comfort. Facing the open sea and the smooth curve of Porthmeor Beach, just where the higgledy- tiled houses of the town meet open country, the gleaming, three-storey gallery by Eldred Evans and David Shalev seems to grow out of the cliffside, 50 feet above the beach. But the architects have melted their Modernism at the edges: it looks exotic and comfortable at the same time.

Inside, a high foyer is fronted by a huge stained glass window by Patrick Heron - probably the most famous of the 'middle generation' of St Ives artists, who came to work in Leach's pottery as a 'conchie' during the war - in yellow, orange and blue. Its purple glow gives you the feeling of being underwater, and as you move up through the five galleries the impression grows. Across an airy, curving balcony for showing ceramics, the rooms start small and dark, and grow successively higher and lighter.

'Not enough room,' say some critics - and certainly the inside is much smaller than the outside suggests. There will be room for 60-70 pictures and 40-50 pieces of sculpture. 'Very oddly shaped' is another view: the way the building backs into the cliff makes one of the galleries five-sided. But the rooftop cafe greets you with a great blast of sea-light from windows framing wide views over the headland into neighbouring bays. And Porthmeor Beach, a few yards outside the door, plays a leading role in the St Ives legend. In 1928, Ben Nicholson and his fellow artist Christopher Wood were visiting St Ives for the day. As they were crossing the beach, their eye was caught by a small house where curious, brightly coloured pictures, innocent but brooding, hung topsy-turvy on nails and pegs. They were the 'naive' seascapes and skyscapes of Alfred Wallis, a 70-year-old ex- seaman.

What the old salt and the young sophisticates said to each other history does not relate - but for Nicholson it was a moment of significant vision, and Wallis's work became a deep influence on his own.

Now, Wallis takes pride of place as the Big Daddy of the St Ives school, and the new gallery overlooks his house. The site was important in the creation of the gallery. In 1988, Nicholas Serota inherited only the germ of an idea that was slowly developing in Cornwall. One look at the view from the ex-gasworks at Porthmeor Beach convinced him that 'if we can't build it here, there's no point in building it'.

Within a short time, pounds 3.3m was raised. Cornwall County Council gave pounds 600,000. But what do local people feel they are getting for their money? In a place that depends so heavily on tourism, 'any visitor is a good visitor', as one shopkeeper put it. But 'the money could have been used for a swimming pool or a leisure centre for the kids', runs one strand of criticism.

Another point of controversy is that the new gallery will charge for admission. 'Well, you have to pay for everything else round here,' was one holidaymaker's comment. Mr Tooby explains: 'The Tate didn't get any increase in its grant to take St Ives into account, and Cornwall County Council, who own the building, were emphatic that this was the only way to run it.' Mr Serota was equally emphatic that this did not mean 'the thin end of the wedge' leading to charges in London and Liverpool.

To compensate, Mr Tooby's plans reach a long way beyond the gallery's walls. The 'Air, Land and Sea' project, based on Peter Lanyon's work, involves field trips to the Cornish mines; a free programme of events on Porthmeor Beach starts with 'Sea Fever' led by surfer-artist Andy Hughes. And when beach-lovers want to move inside the gallery, there's a special cupboard in the foyer where they can stash their surfboards. A scheme to carry out drawings in local hospitals echoes the hospital drawings by Barbara Hepworth on show in the gallery.

Despite the mistrust and criticism that a big project in a small town is bound to generate, there's a special feeling here about the gallery. The St Ives Tate Action Group raised an impressive pounds 135,000 by a series of local events: in the process, their spokeswoman, Janet Axten, believes, hundreds of local people came to feel involved.

And anyone who dislikes the new Tate can comfort themselves with George Moore's quip that 'Great art must be parochial in the beginning to become cosmopolitan in the end' - and at least they're getting a cafe with some of the best views in England.

(Photograph omitted)

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