Cornwall LivingIssue #121

St Ives through new eyes

As we emerge from the shadows of the pandemic and contemplate the future of our tumultuous world, now is the time to boost our collective mood with creativity. 

Between Saturday 28th May and Sunday 5th June, 329 artists, designers and makers from across the Duchy will share their studio spaces and artistic practice as they throw open their doors and welcome visitors to participate in Open Studios Cornwall.

A profound focus on the healing power of nature and a celebration of place permeates much of the artwork on show during this year’s event, as do the ties
that bind us to our immediate surroundings, a response to freedoms curtailed during lockdown.

The unprecedented events of the past two years provided a creative stimulus for some participants and St Ives painter, Emma Jeffryes, found herself among them.

The experience of her daily hour of lockdown exercise has resulted in a body of work that resonates with such an intensity of colour and overwhelming sense of joy, it is impossible not to be cheered by its boundless positivity.

The allure of painting and the ever-changing nature of the sea are indelibly inked in Emma’s memory as she recalls the seaside holidays of childhood in Dorset and visits to grandparents in Norfolk. “Because we lived in Hertfordshire, we did that a lot. That’s where the love of the sea came from because we weren’t living by it,” Emma explains. “That real sense of freedom when swimming in wild water. The absolute beauty of the colours, from muted greys through to the really bright greens. That’s where it all started for me.”

Although her passion for painting ran deep, Emma studied Textile Design at Middlesex University.

“It never occurred to me that I could make a living from painting so I took the design route to build a career that way,” Emma adds. This led to her moment of epiphany.

“A tutor thought I would really like St Ives so I came for a visit and fell in love with it as everyone does. I did lots of painting and even when studying for my Masters at the Royal College of Art, I just couldn’t stay away.” After graduation, Emma instinctively returned and produced ten paintings. 

“Some friendly people at the Porthminster Café suggested I show my work to the New Craftsman Gallery in Fore Street. Boots Redgrave, who was connected to the Leach Pottery family, said she loved my paintings and took me to have them framed in Penzance. I returned to London to complete some freelance design work and the gallery sold them all in about two weeks. That was the defining moment; the sign that I was destined to live in St Ives and paint. I started selling
through galleries and it’s been the same ever since.”

Emma has earned a reputation for depicting the Cornish coast using bright colours and bold shapes. She cites her influences as the early 20th century Fauvists, such as Matisse and Raoul Dufy, who used pure, brilliant colour, applied straight from the tube. Ben Nicholson is another, who distilled visual information into pared-down geometric shapes.

Alfred Wallis’s harbours and shipping scenes, painted in the naïve style and David Hockney’s The Arrival of Spring series are also sources of inspiration.

“The way Wallis looked at things was fascinating; the way he painted and his composition. The way that Hockney draws attention to an object that really interests him, such as a particular tree, by painting it bright pink. I choose different influences as I go along and learn from them. Colour is a big thing,” comments Emma. “If there is something I want to enhance, I do that using strong colour.” And her colours are so intensely vibrant that her paintings sing with joie de vivre. 

“It is all about boats and beaches,” says Emma with a smile. “Sailing boats, tall ships, fishing vessels. I never tire of them and the beauty of their shapes. But I also like to interject a secondary theme to add a point of difference.” 

What changed in lockdown was that Emma began to see St Ives differently. “In our permitted hour of daily exercise, we walked up the most beautiful lane with wild hedgerows where we live. Each year, I do a solo show at the New Craftsman. It’s where I try to push myself in new directions. Last year’s show was all about the experience of walking up and down that lane. As more flowers appeared in the hedgerows, I painted them: in vases, as a stem in a glass, or all the wildflowers together. It is a Cornish lane, still rooted in St Ives, but it led me to explore a dynamic new colour palette of purples, greens and greys. 

“Even though these paintings were not typical St Ives compositions, they were so well-received. It made me feel that if I shifted perspective slightly, I could still paint the St Ives I love but in a different way, with the sea as a backdrop, rather than as the main event.”

This new-found love of walking has led Emma and her husband to tackle sections of the South West Coast Path.

“We are not on mission to do it all but it is the most wonderful thing. A travel journal and sketch book remind me of everything I have seen and that is really feeding into my work. I am as inspired by St Ives as ever and this experience is enabling me to experiment. My work is still sea- and coast-based but people are beginning to appear. The ocean will always fascinate me, whether it is in a state of calm or smashing against the rocks, but I want to do more than depict place and experience. I want to be dynamic and experimental with composition and mark making, to exaggerate space and combine illustrative processes with abstraction. I want to paint this place that I will never tire of for as long as I am able.”

Emma Jeffryes’ 2022 solo show at the New Craftsman Gallery in St Ives runs until 19th May.