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24 September 2014
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  Inside Out - South West: Monday September 29, 2003


Art  model
Penzance School of Art - from life class to canvas.

Cornwall has long been a hotbed of artistic activity with famous artists like Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson. Inside Out celebrates 150 years of the Penzance School of Art.

For decades Cornwall has had a strange lure for painters and sculptors. They're attracted by the light in places like St Ives, Newlyn and Penzance.

But long before artists Barbara Hepworth and Laura Knight had been given their first colouring books, Penzance was the centre of it all.

The town was the home of one of Britain's first provincial art schools. Inside Out goes revisits the college and looks back at 150 years of art and the school's legacy of famous artists.

Penzance School of Art

Penzance School of Art
Penzance School of Art - home to generations of young artists

To celebrate its special anniversary, Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance is holding an exhibition of work from the tutors and pupils.

The show, which runs until November 8, includes paintings, drawings, sculpture and ceramics from such diverse figures as Bernard Leach, Barbara Tribe, Robin Welch and William Colenso, who won the Victoria Bronze Medal in 1864.

Founded in 1853, the Penzance School of Art was a place where the young working men of Cornwall learnt how to mix paints in their palettes.

They also discovered that painters could make much easier money than pilchard fishermen... without having to work in dangerous conditions in difficult weather.

It was very different back then. Men wore stovepipe hats and students restricted their life studies to the less controversial extremities, like hands and feet - and then only plaster models.

Although in the 1850s civilisation was being shaken to its very foundations on a daily basis by the likes of Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, nudity had not yet reached Penzance.

Indeed the first train had only arrived a couple of years before. Nevertheless, Penzance was the first town west of Bristol to have an art school.

Common People

The school's head was a dynamic Frenchman, Henry Geoffroi, whose mission was to bring art to the common man and woman.

Artist sketching model
Brush strokes - students put pen to paper

Peter Waverley says, "In those days I think the sort of people who went were people with some spare money, the artisan class, not the working class because it cost 6d a week."

In 1881 a grand purpose built school was opened, paid for by donations.

The school was the pride of the town.

Even Oscar Wilde was given a guided tour when he was lecturing nearby.

Over the next 150 years the school was to produce a number of artists who would go on to become internationally acclaimed.

Fame and Fortune

The Penzance School of Art became a honey pot of artistic endeavour, and many of its students and lecturers went on to greater things.


Ben Nicholson
Married to Barbara Hepworth. Lived in Cornwall 1939-1958. Renowned for abstract works and cool colours.

Graham Sutherland
Well known as a war artist. Famous for his challenging images.

Bernard Leach
Best-known British studio potter. Set up Leach Pottery in St Ives.

Barbara Hepworth
Internationally acclaimed sculptor with carvings in stone, marble and wood. Based in St Ives.

Stanhope Forbes
Led the Newlyn School of painters. Favoured open air painting using the atmosphere and realism of local colour.

Peter Lanyon
Active member of Crypt group of artists in St Ives. Took up gliding to get better knowledge of landscape. Died in gliding accident.

Laura Knight
One of the 2nd generation of Newlyn painters in the 1920s.

The artist Peter Lanyon studied at Penzance School of Art during the mid 1930s.

He became internationally famous for his work in the 50's and '60s, with one man shows in New York, London and Brazil.

Lanyon drew inspiration from living in Cornwall's artistic colony, and was heavily influenced by fellow artists Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth.

Lanyon met Nicholson and Hepworth in St Ives during the Second World War, together with the renowned sculptor Naum Gabo who had moved to Cornwall after the outbreak of Second World War.

Terry Frost took life classes at the school in the 1950s as did David and Michael Leach in the 1930s.

Much earlier another well-known artist Stanhope Forbes was a visiting lecturer at the Penzance Art School.

Following a successful career as a painter, he also founded the Newlyn School of Art with his wife Elizabeth in 1899.

The Newlyn painters went on to become Cornwall's answer to the Impressionists.

Potty About Art

During the war, the Penzance School of Art started pottery classes - requested by American servicemen who were at a bit of a loose end.

Potter at wheel
In love with clay - Cornwall was a hotbed of craftsmen potters

The man who really pioneered pottery at the school was Bernard Leach, the father of modern British ceramics.

Leach had already set up the famous Leach Pottery in St Ives, experimenting with materials and building kilns.

During his career he shuttled between Cornwall and Japan where he was heavily influenced by Japanese pottery.

Bernard Leach became Britain's leading potter.

He remains one of the most influential designers of the 20th century. Today his designs are revered worldwide.

Robin Welch was one of the new generation of potters who studied at the Penzance School of Art.

As a promising 15 year old Robin's pottery breakfast set was chosen to be given to Prince Charles to celebrate the school's 100th anniversary. "That's my claim to fame... I wonder if he's still got it," says Robin.

During weekends and holidays Robin worked part time at the Leach Pottery, learning the trade first-hand.

Today Robin's work is in the Victoria and Albert Museum collections and in galleries worldwide, so art experts may be glad to hear that Robin's mum never threw anything away.

Artists painting at easels
Back to the classroom - modern art students look for inspiration from past masters

Pointing to one of his early creations Robin says, "That was made at Penzance School of Art.....that thing covered in dust... most horrible of all. It might be worth something one day!," he quips.

Art Attack

After 150 years the Penzance School of Art can look back on an illustrious history.

Not only did it help to shape Britain's art scene, but it has encouraged students with a passion for painting to express their creativity.

Colin Scott, a teacher at the college says, "I've taught people who've been excellent, some mediocre and some who should never have heard the word paintbrush... but they've all got something out of it."

The Penzance Art School has helped Cornwall to make its artistic mark - not a bad achievement for a place at the end of England, many miles from the cultural capitals of London and Paris.

See also ...

BBC Art and Culture - Barbara Hepworth
BBC Devon: Gallery Guide

On the rest of the web
Newlyn Art Gallery
Leach Pottery
Tate Gallery St Ives
Penlee House Gallery and Museum
Penlee House
Penwith College
Penzance - Culture
Studio Pottery - Robin Welch
mHall - Graham Sutherland

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