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Arts and culture in Cornwall

From its artists’ hubs to its filming locations, Cornwall is a destination steeped in heritage, creativity and culture. Watch theatre productions in sub-tropical gardens and cliff-top amphitheatres, capture the seascapes on camera or canvas, and step foot in stunning scenery that’s inspired literary greats and starred in blockbuster films and TV series. 

Word-class galleries

The most popular destination to get to the heart of all things arty is St Ives, where you can visit world-class galleries or get hands-on with painting and pottery workshops. Artists have flocked to the town since the 1930s, when they took over the net lofts deserted by fishermen when the pilchard reserves dried up. Inspired by the magical light, wild landscapes and bohemian lifestyle, the likes of Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon laid their roots here.

Testimony to the town’s immense art legacy is a littering of galleries including the Tate St Ives, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Leach Pottery. In 2017 the iconic Tate St Ives re-opened following a huge expansion; two new major exhibitions for 2019 include the first major retrospective exhibition in the UK of the Cairo-born artist Anna Boghiguian, and drawings and installations by Nigerian-born contemporary artist Otobong Nkanga. Not only can you view local landscapes via the exhibitions or from the rooftop garden, you can also take a family art adventure or join an artist-led workshop to create your own souvenir of the scenery.

While you’re in town don’t limit yourself to the big-name galleries – there are dozens of lesser known galleries and studios to seek out, such as Back Road Artworks in the Downalong area, where you can meet a community of artists and makers creating multi-media artwork. If you want to get in touch with your own creative side, sign up for a ‘sketch and stroll’ with the St Ives School of Painting, join in all sorts of art and craft activities at the Barnoon Workshop, or learn to throw a pot under the tutelage of a local expert at St Ives Pottery.

A 15-minute drive from St Ives will take you to the unique Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, where art and nature merge seamlessly via interactive art exhibits installed in beautiful gardens overlooking Mounts Bay. As well as the underground elliptical domed chamber and camera obscura, new features include a wrap-around viewing structure boasting stunning views to St Michael’s Mount, a series of contemporary sculptures and regular creative workshops including print making and pinhole camera photography.

Testimony to the town’s immense art legacy is a littering of galleries including the Tate St Ives, the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden, and the Leach Pottery

Arty hotspots

Nearby Penzance and Newlyn are two more locations under the artistic spotlight. On the back of the famous Newlyn School art colony of the 1880s, and later, the Forbes School of Painting, the Newlyn School of Art was founded here in 2011, and provides painting, sculpture and drawing courses with some of Cornwall’s most respected artists. You can see an extensive exhibition of original Newlyn School art at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance, while the more modern Newlyn Art Gallery and its sibling, The Exchange, feature ambitious contemporary projects by today’s local artists. 2019 sees Turner prizewinner Lubaina Himid being featured at the Newlyn Art Gallery, while The Exchange is displaying work by Colombian artist Abel Rodriguez, as well as a major solo exhibition by Simon Faithfull.

As well as these arty hotspots that will introduce you to some of the region’s most notable artists and venues, the allure of the county’s art scene also lies in the smaller galleries in more remote locations, and the wave of independent designer-makers inspired by the diverse landscapes. Make a pit stop in the old mining village of St Just, home of one of Cornwall’s leading artists, Kurt Jackson, and witness his documentation of the seasons and scenery at the Jackson Foundation Gallery.

The Exchange

The Exchange features ambitious contemporary projects by today’s local artists

Stained-glass artist Dreya Wharry is another of Cornwall’s many independent artists whose creations echo Cornwall’s natural environment. Wharry’s bespoke glasswork is inspired by the ocean and can be found in a growing number of boutique galleries including The Picture House in Padstow, The Create Gallery at Bedruthan Hotel, Mawgan Porth, and The Square Gallery in St Mawes.

With a huge proliferation of art festivals, makers guilds and craft fairs cropping up across the county, you don’t have to hunt high and low to unearth – and commission – artists like Wharry. Organisations such as the Newquay Makers Guild and the Cornwall Crafts Association are brilliant starting blocks for finding unique pieces by talented local artists. One of the biggest art events is the nine-day Open Studios in May, when hundreds of artists across the county throw open the doors to their unusual workspaces, from historic chapels to coastal cottages. Follow the iconic ‘O’ signs scattered across Cornwall to venues where you can meet the creators, sign up for workshops and get your hands on unique sculptures, glasswork, ceramics, paintings and textiles.

The allure of the county’s art scene also lies in the smaller galleries in more remote locations, where there is a wave of independent designer-makers inspired by the diverse landscapes

Festival fever

Another celebration to be flagged on any art lovers’ calendar is the St Ives September Festival – a two-week spread of theatre productions, art exhibitions, literary events and live music, celebrating the region’s diverse creative bounty. 2019 will also see the inaugural Isles of Scilly Arts and Culture festival (Creative Scilly), taking place in May and featuring a mix of local and national artists, writers, outdoor film and musical performances. After a recent study confirmed the Isles’ of Scilly status as the darkest district in the UK, a new observatory is also opening on the island of St Martin’s, so make sure you incorporate a visit to gaze at the sparkly night sky.

One of Cornwall’s biggest music festivals is Boardmasters which attracts 50,000 music fans to Watergate Bay near Newquay. The 2019 event, which runs from August 7 to August 11, sees Florence and The Machine as the headline act and the line-up also features Grime stars Giggs and Dizzee Rascal, Jorja Smith, Franz Ferdinand, Wilkinson b2b Sub Focus, DJ EZ, Michael Franti & Spearhead, Ocean Wisdom, Lewis Capaldi, Pete Murray, Lady Leshurr, Flava D, Dimension, Bradley Zero, Self Esteem and Boy Azooga.

Meanwhile Falmouth’s three-day Arts Alive festival brings the spotlight to the South Coast art community in June, bringing together the art, theatre and music that underpin the creative culture of this harbour town. Stroll through Falmouth in any season to discover a string of galleries and creative enterprises: the historic venue of The Poly shows classic and contemporary films and exhibitions, while the prestigious Falmouth Art Gallery grants free entry to collections by major British artists including Victorian painters, British Impressionists and leading maritime artists.

Home of one of the UK’s leading creative universities (which is its own microcosm of multi-media arts, hosting music nights and literati gatherings), it’s little wonder that Falmouth has become so popular on the art and literary scene. Make a beeline for Beerwolf Books if you want to browse wall-to-wall books, meet book- and beer-loving folk, listen to bands, and perhaps bump into the town’s resident authors such as Emily Barr.

One of Cornwall’s biggest music festivals is Boardmasters which attracts 50,000 music fans to Watergate Bay near Newquay

Film and literature

However, Cornwall’s most notable literary connections should arguably be attributed to Fowey, once home to the region’s best-known author, Daphne du Maurier. The annual Fowey Festival of Arts and Literature, held each May, was launched in honour of du Maurier, and her legacy is still very much at the core of this celebration of words, art and music.

However, you don’t have to time your visit with the festival to explore the Fowey Estuary, climb to the daymark atop Gribbin Head and admire the historic Menabilly Estate that inspired some of her work. Du Maurier wasn’t the only author penning Fowey and its surrounds into her novels; hop on a river cruise from Fowey to Lerryn and you’ll be messing around in the scenery that inspired Ratty and Mole’s boat trip in Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. Much of the Atlantic-lashed north coast of Cornwall has also stirred the imaginations of writers over the decades. Visit the picturesque harbour village of Boscastle, where Thomas Hardy fell in love with his first wife, or climb the grassy knoll of Brea Hill from Daymer Bay, to soak up the scenery that inspired the late Poet Laureate, John Betjeman, taking the diversion to St Enodoc Church where he is buried.

Kynance Cove

Poldark fans will recognise Kynance Cove which doubles up as Poldark’s beloved Nampara

Between the two is pretty Port Isaac, well known as the fictional Port Wenn in Doc Martin. But Doc Martin is no longer the best know TV series entrenched in the Cornish lifestyle and landscape; it’s now BBC’s Poldark that has made the Cornwall’s scenery a veritable star. As you explore from the cliffs near Porthcothan, the dunes of Holywell Bay, picturesque Porthgwarra and Charlestown, you’ll recognise the landscapes from the adventures of Ross and Demelza. On the back of Poldark’s success you can join a number of guided tours, including an eight-day Poldark Tour with Cornwall Cycle Tours and a range of tours with Poldark’s Cornwall.

Films and TV series aren’t the only performances in which Cornwall’s scenery plays such a vital role: this is a county that boasts an exceptional variety of unique, outdoor theatre settings. Best known is the Minack Theatre, an amphitheatre carved into the cliffs at Porthcurno. The life’s work of Rowena Cade, the Minack opened in 1932 with a production of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and at least one Shakespeare classic features in the annual programme of plays and music in which the Cornish weather, the spectacular ocean backdrop, and sometimes even passing dolphins, play their part. If you don’t catch one of the seasonal performances (April until October), it’s still worth a visit to check out the remarkable setting and sub-tropical terraced gardens.

On the back of Poldark’s success you can join a number of guided tours, including an eight-day Poldark Tour with Cornwall Cycle Tours and a range of tours with Poldark’s Cornwall

Live theatre

Despite the unpredictable Cornish weather, open-air theatre has become a huge phenomenon here – a result of both the proliferation of talented performing arts organisations and the incredible, crowd-pulling venues. The award-winning Rogue Theatre has made an indelible mark on the scene, with magical productions in the enchanting Tehidy Woods. From the Wild Woodland Summer Ball to the spooky Dead of the Night Dance, there are shows for all ages.

In 2019, Miracle Theatre celebrates its 40th anniversary with its latest show, A Perfect World, touring from the cliff-tops to castles, including Carn Marth Quarry, Enys House and Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. The play is an action-packed adventure following a feisty young woman as she journeys into a Boy’s Own world of jungles, treasure maps and campfires.

Meanwhile Kneehigh Theatre has channelled its magical storytelling into a free Storywalk App that enables you to discover the sights and sounds of Cornwall through enthralling stories based in the places you visit – currently including Perranporth, Mevagissey, Newquay, Bodmin and Helston. Hear stories collected from surfers, pub landladies, young mothers, fishermen and tattoo artists, and discover the truth about the Frog King and how Archie Cornish caught his last wave.

You don’t have to take a punt on the Cornish weather to catch the best of the region’s performing arts. Wherever you’re staying you won’t be far from one of the county’s indoor venues showing theatre and live music. Catch regular dance, theatre and music at the Acorn Centre in Penzance, watch international headliners at the Eden Sessions, enjoy world-class musicals and rock concerts at the Hall For Cornwall in Truro, or take a pew in the city’s awe-inspiring cathedral for a classical concert or festive carols.

In a place so packed with art and cultural events and attractions, the endless list of what’s on – and where – can be mind-boggling. So, for a fast-track guide to what’s happening during your holiday, see the Cornwall 365 website or get under the skin of Cornwall’s creative and cultural scene with one of their Find & Seek guides.

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Image credits: ©Alex Rawson/Boardmasters Festival; Sean Mcgee/Unsplash; Miracle Theatre; Simon Cook/Steve Tanner/Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange; St Ives School of Painting; St Ives September Festival; VisitBritain/Tomo Brejc

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