Posts Tagged ‘Cornish people’
Why do artists come to Cornwall?
It is a mixture of material and mystical, facts and fantasies, all equally important. The climate, the brilliant light, the almost Mediterranean blue of the sea, the fascinating formations of rocks and cliffs, hills and valleys, sand and pebble shores – these are some of the more obvious attractions. So, too, is the comparitive freedom and easiness of life in a small but cosmopolitan town such as St. Ives, as compared to most of the provincial towns and industrial areas; the congenial atmosphere of working and living among large groups of fellow artists; the facilities of numerous art galleries and show-rooms, several art societies, clubs and other meeting places; and last but by no means least, a sympathetic local population and press, conditioned by several decades of growing-up alongside the art colony, so that what might seem an oddity if dumped in some other part of Britain has come to be taken for granted in Cornwall.
The bones of this land are not speechless
And first you should learn their language
This is a hideous and wicked country,
Sloping to hateful sunsets at the end of time,
Hollow with mine shafts, naked with granite, fanatic
With sorrow. Abortions of the past
Hop through these bogs; black-faced, the villagers
Remember burnings by the hewn stones.
Heath-Stubbs makes Zennor sound like the vision of the countryside/Cornwall portrayed in Straw Dogs or An American Werewolf in London. It’s a strange, alien and terrifying place. Part of England, but not of it. It’s a truly hellish vision.
Val Baker goes on to recount Walter de la Mare‘s reaction to his first visit to Corwall, who wrote that he didn’t feel safe until he’d crossed the River Tamar and was safely back in Devonshire. He also mentions that Aleister Crowley was rumoured to visit West Penwith regularly to conduct black masses.
It’s not really surprising that the freedom felt by artists engendered by landscape also attracted those in search of other kinds of freedoms. The ancient wildness of Cornwall’s landscape , along with its Iron Age dwelling places and standing stones has the suggestion of the pre-Christian, and perhaps could be described as godless.
It is then that the drowned sailors of the past can be heard hailing their names above the moaning of the waters. It is then that the sense of the primordial, the strange and the savage, the unknown, the very long ago, fills the dusk with something that is akin to dread. It is then that the place becomes haunted; a giant heaves grey limbs from his granite bed; a witch sits in that stone chair on a cliff…
Past and present, moments and centuries, all are entangled and interwoven in Cornwall. Eternity is contained in a hundred years. And this is not only reflected in the landscape but in the people.
The past of their lives has lost neither face nor voice behind the shroud, nor are the passions of the flesh, not is the animate soul, wanting to it. Other races forfeit infancy, forfeit youth and manhood, with their progression to the wisdom age may bestow. These have each stage always alive, quick at a word, a scent, a sound, to conjure up scenes in spirit and in flame.
The Cornish people themselves are like their land, an old and knowing race, withdrawn to strangers, living as much in the past as the present; without, as has been said, much creative inspiration, yet with a quick response to all things of that nature.
reaction to a sensitized soil
The thing about the Cornish is that they are not nice: exciting and attractive, but not nice. They have colour enough to turn the spectacles of most onlookers pink but it is not fast to light. The impulsiveness that goes as far as magnanimity does not sustain generosity; the devotion, loyal to fanaticism, has no fidelity; the forthcomingness keeps much more back than reticence – like an iceberg, two-thirds under the water, if there were not anything less like an iceberg than any Celt… Where does it go, then, all the colour? The warm tones of manner, the light and shade of speech? the colour goes into the personality. Almost one might say it is enough for the Cornish to be Cornish; btu not quite for they have a full measure of Celtic discontent. The energy that makes for colourfulness goes into the business of living – always a hard one in Cornwall – the fervour into congregational worship, into a personal relationship with omnipotence, not into embellishing its dwelling-place; the enterprise into seeking fortunes afield.
R. Glyn Grylls Cornish Review
A somewhat dark and damning description of the Cornish, really, although R. Glyn Grylls is herself Cornish, that I dare say would be unpublishable now. At least you’d hope so. But that idea of both the landscape and the people, its/their fundamental alienness, persists in popular culture as the aforementioned films demonstrate just one example. The English middle-classes love to holiday in cottages across the county, but will still make jokes about its ‘primitive’ nature unthinkingly.
The open coliseum of each little cove of sand or rock may be the theatre for any natural, supernatural or unnatural event. The unending presence of the sea breathing ceaselessly over the shoulder of each hill, the the rock charged with a thousand sunsets or carved by a hundred years of rain, the little trees loaded with berries growing away from the prevailing wind, offering crimson to green, the mind’s incessant vertigo at the cliff edge, and the slow constructional flight of the seagull – these things in some way act as the charming of magicians and open up the deeper rooms of experience in man, making him aware of his being part of the natural universe, at the head of a great unseen procession of gods, and devils, spectres and dragons; of being a channel for unknown and undefined forces; of facing the mystery of life, awakening powers of perception which search beyond the frontiers of normal events.
There is a good reason, of course, for the fascination which the streets and buildings of St. Ives have for artist. It is simply a lack of change.
Atmosphere! Yes, that its the important ingredient of St. Ives as an art colony: an atmosphere that gives as well as takes, to and from the artists. Did St. Ives have atmosphere before the artists came and settled? Of course. But is that atmosphere stronger because of their presence? Again, of course. We are on subtle ground here, but then the atmosphere of an art colony is a subtle thing. [...] Thus that one scene, perhaps one moment, of local life, might be translated into a series of other moments, many of which would later be sent out into the world, to be hung in galleries, reproduced in books, and so on. And because of seeing those results, all kinds of people might be tempted to visit the place that inspired them. And once they had seen St. Ives at first hand – the cobbled streets, the fairy-like harbour, the Mediterranean-blue sea, the artists at work before their easels, pictures hanging everywhere, studios tucked away down almost every little by-way – what would be the general reaction? Wonderment, delight, fascination, ‘there’s nowhere else like it in Britain’. How many thousands of people are there who come back to St. Ives year after year for this very reason; how many indeed, as I know myself, who have come for a visit and stayed a lifetime?
Finally then, how are we to define what it is that draws them? The place? The paintings? The fishermen? The artists? Or perhaps everything curiously mixed up?
It is on these lines, I fancy, that St. Ives has become what it is today. It remains, underneath, what it has always been, a Cornish fishing port; but it has had imposed on it the everyday life of an artists community – an imposition at first resented and resisted, but later accepted and even assimilated so that today ‘them artists’, as the fishermen used to refer to them, with a wealth of disparagement, are as familiar to the locals as the postman, the butcher and the baker. If you stop and consider those last words, perhaps you may experience their full impact.