Two museums in Cornwall, one is trendy, the other delightful

Nanjizal beach is a mile from Land’s end

I have been going to Land’s End in West Cornwall for twenty years and I discover new delights every time. This year, I rushed to visit the new addition to the Tate gallery St Ives and see the late Patrick Heron exhibition but what really charmed my heart was the show of S.J. Lamorna Birch’ Cornish paintings at the Penlee House in Penzance. Am I becoming conservative? No I am just in love with the Cornish countryside.

Samuel John “Lamorna” Birch, Morning at Lamorna Cove, 1930s

Devoted primarily to the Newlyn school of artists, the Penlee House collection is open since 1948. Its most famous work is “The Rain it raineth every day” by Norman Garstin, a view of Penzance’ quay with umbrellas that reminded me of Caillebotte’s paintings. The exhibitions this year are called, “Art and fishing in Newlyn”, ” Borlase Smart, a passion for the sea”  (15-9 to 17- 11) and “Entranced by a special place”, the show dedicated at the moment to Samuel John Birch who lived on Lamorna cove and was so smitten by it that his artist’s name was changed to add it. The modesty of the museum and the kindness of the staff give it a very special charm.

There we ran into Sir John Nott, former MP for St Ives and Secretary of State for Defense during the Falklands war. He is the most attractive and charming gentleman I have met in a long time and his British elegance is genuine.

At Penlee House, Lamorna Birch’s spectacular landscapes

The exhibition is lovely with a variety of inland and sea landscapes and I have to admit that West Cornwall’s special light and poetry are incredibly uplifting. If you stay in one of the cottages of the St Levan estate (Lord St Levan owns and lives on St Michael’s Mount), you feel the wilderness and the beauty of this area as genuinely as you would have in the 19 th century.

This is also where John Le Carré lives, in Saint Just where we shop. He sometimes can be seen on the beach in Sennen, having a quiet lunch. We did not have dinner this year at the Larmona Cove hotel but it is one of the rare luxurious spots on the windy road to Land’s End.

Samuel John Birch, Boleigh Farm, Lamorna, 1895

Architecture has not changed very much except that most farm houses have now become cottages for rent. While I was there, the local farmer was on his tractor and cows and poneys were grazing on the cliffs facing the beautiful coastline.

In Newlyn, the gallery shows contemporary painters (Rose Wylie at the moment)  but we went mostly for the fantastic fish at W. Harvey and Sons (which delivers to London daily). Penzance is featured in many of Birch’s paintings and has not changed either, with its declining high street and good bookstore. The almost 6 hr train ride from London makes it a deserved destination.

The view of the beach from the Tate gallery in St Ives

While the Newlyn school was comparable to Pont Aven’s in Brittany in 1880, St Ives became famous in the 1920’s when Virginia Woolf, Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Ben Nicholson, and later Naum Gabo and my favorite Alfred Wallis spent time working there.  The Tate is a charming small museum, which reopened this year with a new beautiful concrete wing for large formats designed by architect Jamie Fobert who also designed the Pace gallery in London.

I did not particularly warm to artist Patrick Heron but love the place for its history and spectacular setting. A room dedicated to the French and Cornish artists’ relations is fascinating including a pretty Matisse and a “Cornish church” by Sir Matthew Smith. Barbara Hepworth’s sculpture “Three forms” in marble is a beauty.

The Patrick Heron show is in the new gallery designed by Jamie Fobert

The visit was perfectly concluded by a sublime crab sandwich on the beach with Lady Antonia Fraser who has been coming to Cornwall for many years with Harold Pinter and her children and grandchildren.  Her new book, “The King and the catholics, the fight for rights 1829” was just published in May.

Lady Antonia Fraser in full form in St Ives

The young generation went swimming in the 16° water …

Tate St Ives until September 18. There is no easy access to Cornwall and that’s what makes it so special. From Paris I fly to Exeter on Flybe and drive for 2.30 hr. fromLondon you can fly to Newquay.

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