Where light, land and sea add up to inspiration

St Ives has long been the heart of artistic Cornwall, but now there is a flourishing gallery scene all over the Penwith area. Alex Wade offers a guide

'There's something wonderful about being on the edge of things," says Gilly Wyatt-Smith, owner of The Yew Tree Gallery in Penwith, the area of Cornwall which hosts the last stretch of England before it drops away into the Atlantic. "It's so momentous, coming over the moors from Penzance and taking the coast road to St Ives, to see the edge of the country and beyond, thousands of miles of sea. It gets to the imagination."

'There's something wonderful about being on the edge of things," says Gilly Wyatt-Smith, owner of The Yew Tree Gallery in Penwith, the area of Cornwall which hosts the last stretch of England before it drops away into the Atlantic. "It's so momentous, coming over the moors from Penzance and taking the coast road to St Ives, to see the edge of the country and beyond, thousands of miles of sea. It gets to the imagination."

The imagination of two formidable writers was similarly fired by Penwith. D H Lawrence lived for a while in the enchanting village of Zennor, some six miles along narrow lanes from The Yew Tree, and Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse was inspired by family holidays in St Ives.

But what I was really looking for was art - or, perhaps more accurately, its source. I wanted to see what had inspired generations of artists, from Whistler and Sickert in the late 19th century through to the legendary post-war "St Ives School" usually associated with the sculptor Barbara Hepworth and her artist husband Ben Nicholson. So many other renowned artists had made their homes in Penwith - Wilhemina Barns-Graham, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, John Wells and Bryan Winter, to name a few. What had touched them so deeply?

I opted to stay in the village of Pendeen given its relatively central position in Penwith. From there, sorties could be made to the moors and beaches and to the centre of the Cornwall art scene, St Ives. I would take in a few galleries and absorb the landscape known by local surfers - rather unnervingly - as the Badlands, thanks to the huge Atlantic swells that smash against rugged cliffs and on to the fine surfing beaches of Sennen Cove and St Ives.

Those same swells help to explain the area's appeal. Exposed to everything that the Atlantic can throw at it, and yet also on the Gulf Stream, this is a part of the world where the light changes within minutes. Nothing is settled for long in Penwith, and yet its very exposure creates a microclimate that sees milder temperatures year-round than anywhere else in Britain. As one villager in Pendeen told me: "Here, summer starts in February."

The variable weather makes for the kind of ever-changing light that fascinates artists. But, according to Arthur Hancocks, owner of the Plumbline Gallery in St Ives for the past 11 years, something about Penwith is extra-special. "There's a boldness to the landscape as well as an incredible energy here," he says. Hancocks believes that the history of the area has built its own momentum. It has attracted more and more artists which, "despite the fact the everyone knows each other, creates a healthy sense of creative conflict."

Another St Ives gallery owner and artist, Sue Halliday of Cornerstones, moved to Penwith six years ago from Manchester. She has not looked back, and says that "it's always so dramatic here. There's a slow visual absorption that means the landscape filters through to you."

It takes no more than half a day to see what they mean. The ever-changing light plays not just on a sea that can range from immaculate turquoise to blistering grey but on a wild and dramatic landscape. Penwith is a peninsula of ancient moorland, studded with iron-age settlements, stone circles and, of more modern provenance but every bit as stirring, the remnants of a once-thriving tin mining industry. There are inquisitive seals and spectacular lighthouses, coves barely visited even in summer, and always a sense that this is indeed the edge of things, the place, as Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago has it in The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, "where the sea ends and the earth awaits".

No wonder that there are galleries at every turn, not only in St Ives with its cobbled streets, fishermen's cottages and harbour but along the coast road to St Just and round into Penzance. The atmosphere is one of inexhaustible creative energy, fuelled by the landscape. Must-see institutions such as Tate St Ives, the New Millennium Gallery and Barbara Hepworth Museum mingle in St Ives with discreet, high-quality galleries and others that are more commercial, while in St Just the vibrant arts community has formed the "Just Arts" group, a collective of 15 studios and galleries. Along the way, there is the stunning landscape and, at almost every turn, the sea.

Between St Ives and St Just, on the coast road, The Yew Tree is a highlight of any visit to Penwith. Gilly Wyatt-Smith's love affair with the area led to her upping sticks from Gloucestershire and setting up the gallery in November 2001. She shows contemporary ceramics, sculptures and art in a gloriously weather-worn setting. Outside are sculpture gardens and an organic potager, large enough to supply herbs and vegetables for sale. Beyond is a meadow full of wild flowers and grasses whose own edges are planted with young trees in an attempt to lessen the impact of gales on growing plants.

Standing in the meadow, feeling the wind sweeping in from the sea and over the moors, gazing at the mythic sculptural forms dotted around the garden, it is easy to see why Wyatt-Smith made her move. This may be the edge of things, but it is a very fine place to be.

GIVE ME THE FACTS

Where to stay

The North Inn, Pendeen (01736 788 417; www.thenorthinnpendeen.co.uk). Double rooms start from £60 per person per night. More accommodation can be found at www.cornwall-online.co.uk

What to see

Galleries are listed at www.cornish-links.co.uk/galleries.

Further information

Cornwall Tourist Board (01872 322 900; www.cornwalltouristboard.co.uk)

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