Porthmeor Studios and Cellars, providing workspace for fishermen and artists, is a unique reminder of the industrial history of St Ives. It is remarkable not only for being possibly the oldest artists’ studios in the country, but also for hosting some of Britain’s most influential painters including Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Francis Bacon, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham and Julius Olsson.
It seems astonishing that although it sits on one of the most beautiful beaches in Cornwall, it is still being used by the industries that it was originally designed for: fishing and art. This exceptional tradition has been recognised by English Heritage, who have given it a Grade II* listing.
The building was constructed in several phases between 1810 and 1895 to service the huge commercially-operated St Ives pilchard fishery, with evidence of its origins still clearly visible in Cellar 1. This spectacular cellar also displays another unusual, and very Cornish, architectural feature: its massive timber joists and cast-iron supporting columns were originally designed to serve as the pump rods and pipes to pump water from tin mines.
With the demise of the commercial St Ives pilchard industry in the early 20th century, the cellars were taken over by individual fishermen. They are still used today mainly for setting nets, and drying and storing fishing gear.
The arrival of artists in St Ives in the 1880s coincided with the decline of the pilchard trade, and artists converted the now redundant net lofts into studios, attracted by their space, airiness and quality of light. Since then Porthmeor has been at the heart of the development of the world famous artists’ colony at St Ives, now best known for its association with the modernist movement in British Art.
The studios owe their continued existence in particular to Moffat Lindner and Borlase Smart. Lindner’s legacy was the saving of the PorthmeorStudios. A marine painter, Lindner bought the building in 1929, and arranged for its sale for £6,000 in 1949 on the condition that the studios were secured for the use of artists in perpetuity.
Smart, a painter and critic, was a champion of artists whatever their chosen style, and especially encouraged the young modernists. Smart also invited his friend Leonard Fuller to set up the St Ives School of Painting in 1938, still flourishing today in two studios at Porthmeor.
The Borlase Smart Memorial Fund was established in 1949 in memory of Borlase Smart to acquire Porthmeor Studios from Lindner. In 2002 the Trust was bequeathed Trewarveneth and Anchor Studios in Newlyn from the estate of the artist John Wells, and the renamed Borlase Smart John Wells Trust still owns and manages these three studios today.