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Potted history is perfect introduction to painting on the peninsula

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: April 28, 2012

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To tell the story of art in Cornwall within the framework of publisher Alison Hodge's Pocket Cornwall series must have seemed a daunting task, but it is one which author and art historian Michael Bird is not only well qualified to do but also one he does extremely well.

Although Cornwall is not the only place in the country to have stunning views, fascinating sea and landscapes, even a certain much-vaunted quality of light, it has been "the" centre for art and artists, rivalling only that of London, since the late 19th century.

Just why this has come about owes almost everything, as Michael Bird points out, to the Great Western Railway and its arrival in Cornwall in the mid-1800s.

Until then Cornwall had been remote, a long and difficult way from everywhere and, with its fishing and mining industries, not all that appealing to those who ventured west of the Tamar. In order to encourage tourists, the region was marketed as a place of myths and legends.

The portrayal of Cornwall as a foreign land, not really a part of England, was seized on by the fledgling tourist industry. The "English Riviera" tag cast a veil of Mediterranean glamour over a region struggling with economic decline. Early railway posters advertised Cornish sun, sea and signorine on the bizarre basis that the long and knobbly peninsula resembled a map of Italy.

Be that as it may, the GWR not only brought tourists into Cornwall but also those who wanted to live and make a living there as artists and it was not long before the place was awash with painters.

From Turner's 1811 tour of the west to the colonisation of Newlyn and St Ives to the post-war avant garde movement to the opening of Tate St Ives, all is covered in the 112 pages of Michael Bird's Art In Cornwall.

While Penwith receives the largest slice of the cake, the author is fully aware that Cornwall begins at the Tamar and that there are other places associated with art and artists. From Falmouth to the Helford, the Lizard to Porthleven and Scilly, they all get a mention. So, too, do the artists – Francis Bacon to Sandra Blow, Stanhope Forbes to Paul Feiler, Naum Gabo to Barbara Hepworth, Walter Langley to Ben Nicholson, Breon O'Casey to Bryan Pearce, Borlase Smart to Henry Scott Tuke, John Wells to Karl Weschke, Christopher Wood to Alfred Wallis.

beginning with its colourful cover of Anthony Frost's The Colour Of Sound, the book includes many reproductions of paintings interspersed by its author's authoritative and informed text.

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