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26th March 2018 Hayley Spurway

Arts and culture in Cornwall

World-class galleries

St Ives September Festival

Historically a stronghold for artists, Cornwall is a destination that’s steeped in creativity and culture. Watch captivating theatre productions in sub-tropical settings, capture the seascapes on camera or canvas, or cruise around the stunning scenery that’s been the backdrop of countless books, films and TV series.

The most obvious destination to get to the heart of the art scene is St Ives, where you can witness an array of artwork in world-class galleries, or get hands-on with painting, pottery or poetry 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. “I have gained very great inspiration from Cornish land- and sea-scape, the horizontal line of the sea and the quality of light and colour”, said Hepworth in 1946.

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. The Tate St Ives re-opened in 2017 after a huge expansion project, and is now home to a permanent exhibition of some of the region’s greatest 20th-century artists, alongside seasonal displays of contemporary art from around the globe. 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 at the Leach Pottery.

The Tate St Ives re-opened in 2017 after a huge expansion project, and is now home to a permanent exhibition of some of the region’s greatest 20th-century artists, alongside seasonal displays of contemporary art from around the globe

Arty hotspots

Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange

Once you’ve seen St Ives and its surrounds, take a short hop across the wild scenery of Penwith to the south coast, where the creative hubs of Penzance and Newlyn snatch a well-earned beam of 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 under the tutelage of over 30 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.

In addition to 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.

Pause in the picturesque Lamorna Cove, hunkered on the south coast, and explore in the footsteps of the Post-impressionist artists who gravitated here to work in the early 20th century. Stained-glass artist Dreya Wharry is one of Cornwall’s many independent artists whose creations echo Cornwall’s natural environment. Wharry’s bespoke glasswork – from waves to wildlife – is sold in boutique galleries including The Picture House in Padstow and the Create Gallery at Bedruthan Hotel, Mawgan Porth.

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 undoubtedly 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.

In addition to 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

Diverse creative bounty

Falmouth Art Gallery

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.

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.

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.

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

Stirred the imaginations

Minack Theatre

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.

Between the two is pretty Port Isaac, well known as the fictional Port Wenn in Doc Martin. As you make your way around the coast from the cliffs near Porthcothan, to the dunes of Holywell Bay and around Land’s End to Porthgwarra and Charlestown, you’ll step foot in many of the coastal nooks and crannies that have starred alongside Ross and Demelza in the BBC hit, Poldark. On the back of Poldark’s success you can join a number of guided tours into Poldark country, including an eight-day cycling tour through the filming locations with Cornish Cycle Tours.

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 on the international stage 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.

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 innovative Miracle Theatre Company have been putting on open-air theatre shows for over 35 years, in an ever-growing programme of venues from historic houses such as Pencarrow and Lanhydrock, to Trebah and Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens. More recently 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.

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

Interactive performances

Arts and culture in Cornwall

Based in Redruth and helmed by award-winning director Bill Mitchell, Wildworks has become renowned for its interactive performances that bring together theatre and landscape in inspirational settings such as Trelowarren and Heligan. Contemporary dance has also made a debut on Cornish beaches in recent years, with the mesmerising Shoreline, performed by Simon Birch Dance at the likes of Watergate Bay, Sennen Cove and Kynance Cove.

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 glam 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.

Celebrating the county’s cultural tourism, Cornwall 365 is a network of the county’s key creative players. 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: ©Igor Bulgarin/Shutterstock.com; Simon Cook/Steve Tanner Photography/Newlyn Art Gallery & The Exchange; St Ives September Festival

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