Edge-of-the-world art at Britain's windswept tip

On a sunny day it isn't difficult to see why, from the 19th century onwards, St Ives attracted artists from across the country. Some, such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth who left London in 1939, stayed and formed artists' communities. Others, including Turner and Whistler, just passed through.

Today it is daytrippers and sightseers who come to this Cornish town. They bask on Porthgwidden beach and go crabbing from Smeatons Pier. They throng Fore Street and The Digey, squeezing in and out of the souvenir shops and fish and chip parlours. Some are mugged by the giant, thuggish seagulls; many will visit the Tate Gallery's St Ives outpost which overlooks Porthmeor bay.

After a record-breaking summer for Tate St Ives – 99,795 visitors in 11 weeks and unprecedented parking problems – the gallery inaugurates a tentatively seasonal approach with an autumn retrospective of Bryan Wynter (until 2 December). Wynter, a quintessential post-war St Ives artist, moved from painting gouache landscapes in the 1940s to more abstract canvases by the time of his death in 1975.

The four-part Wynter exhibition is supported by a collection of photographs entitled At The Very Edges of the World by Thomas Joshua Cooper. Cooper, professor of photography fine art at Glasgow School of Art and one of the most significant artists using photography today (the distinction is important; Cooper "makes" rather than takes photographs), is very fond of coasts. In fact, he likes them so much that he has circumnavigated Britain five times. The Californian ex-pat also has purist tendencies; he uses a 102-year-old camera and he only ever makes one negative. Travelling to the last footstep of land possible – Point Ardnamurchan in Scotland, Bumble Rock in Cornwall – Cooper, a non-swimmer, captures remarkable seascapes. "On one level it is about bringing the outdoors inside, into the heart and the mind."

St Ives may not be at the edge of the world but, perched on the north coast of the Lizard Peninsula, it is at the windswept tip of Britain. When the Atlantic swells are rolling in, Porthmeor beach, framed by the Tate's enormous curved window, draws dozens of surfers. Turn left out of the Tate along Porthmeor beach, away from the town, and you'll find cliff-top footpaths with sea-anglers and even the odd watercolourist huddled among the rocks. Carry on walking and sooner or later you would reach Land's End.

It is this pagan landscape between St Ives, Penzance and Land's End that inspired the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. Turn right out of the Tate and walk up The Digey and you'll come across signs to the Barbara Hepworth Gallery and Sculpture Garden, which is also run by the Tate. Her home and studio now has the air of a slightly faded shrine (it was placed in the care of the Tate in 1980) but the sculpture garden is a rewarding respite from the bustling, cobbled lanes around it. From standing stones to eroded rock, the inspiration behind some of the 40 or so sculptures is very Cornish.

The narrow lanes between the Barbara Hepworth Museum and the bays (there are two, divided by the bulge of The Island), are crammed with shops. If you can't bear to leave St Ives without a ship in a bottle, this is the place to look. Local advice suggests that the best time to visit is autumn, when the crowds of tourists have thinned. And rather than contribute to the town's congestion, try the good rail links to Penzance and St Ives.

Tate St Ives opens daily from 10am (01736 796226). Adults £3.95, concessions £2.50. First Great Western (08457 000 125, www.great-western-trains.co.uk).