Arts Diary: The boss’s ultimatum that led to a new art school linking two distant peninsulas

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IN 2003, a few years after he graduated with an MA in art history from St Andrews, Henry Garfit’s boss at a leading private London gallery gave him a choice, and a week to make it: was he going to be an art dealer, or an artist?

After leaving Scotland in 1999 Garfit – whose father William paints riverscapes on commission for Scottish and English estates – had straddled both worlds. He worked for auctioneers and galleries, writing catalogues, while taking classes at two London art schools. Two days later he handed in his notice, and headed for Cornwall, initially taking a winter let in a coastguard cottage.

“That was the point that the crossroads was telling me to go into painting,” Garfit says. “I thought I ought to get as far from friends and family as possible.”

An abstract painter and printmaker, who has since had solo and group shows in London and Cornwall, Garfit has also kept his hand in the art business since his move west, but not as a dealer.

Two months ago, he opened the Newlyn School of Art at the top of a steep hill in the fishing village adjoining Penzance that was the inspiration for the Newlyn “school” of painters in the late 19th and early 20th century.

It offers a wide variety of short art courses to foster local artistic talent, from cut-price life drawing or print-making classes, to landscape painting en plein air.

Set in a generously-sized set of former schoolhouses, it also aims to provide a second source of income to about 15 artists who teach there.

“Living with artists made me realise that there’s no part-time jobs here to help them sustain themselves,” he says. “Living off their art is pretty tricky. There aren’t that many who manage do it on it’s own.”

Kingdom and Kernow

There’s no need to overstate the ties that bind Scottish and Cornish art, but they are there – particularly in Fife and in the Penwith peninsula, Cornwall’s westernmost toe. The Newlyn painters and their successors were drawn there partly by a clarity of light similar to southern France, and while Scottish landscape painters face stormier skies, there are strong visual similarities between the areas’ fishing communities.

“We always say that Fife and Anstruther have things in common with Mousehole [the famously pretty Cornish harbour town] and Newlyn, although perhaps not the weather,” says Garfit. There are also connections between Cornwall and some of Scotland’s more northerly coastal communities. The Pier Art Centre in Orkney houses a stellar collection of works by artists in the St Ives school, the dominant 20th-century group of Cornish painters based in the scenic seaside town a few miles away from Newlyn.

They mostly belonged to Margaret Gardiner, who was a friend and supporter of founding figures in the St Ives school including Ben Nicholson, his wife Barbara Hepworth, and the Cornish seaman and artist Alfred Wallis. She began visiting Orkney from the 1950s and established the centre there to house the works.

In January, the Fleming Collection of Scottish art in London will devote an exhibition to a painter long labelled as another leading member of the St Ives School, Wilhemina Barnes-Graham.

The show promises a “radical reappraisal,” reclaiming her as “a Scottish artist in St Ives”.

Marking the centenary of her birth in St Andrews, it will aim to “do justice” to the influence of her artistic training in Edinburgh under the likes of SJ Peploe, and emphasise that after her move to St Ives in 1940, she continued to divide her time, and inspiration, between Cornwall and Fife. It makes the case there were two “creative centres” for her work.

Cornish struggle

The debate over contemporary v traditional art is as lively in Cornwall as it is in Edinburgh. In Newlyn there’s been a sometimes angry debate over the local Newlyn Art Gallery, a publicly funded gallery in a prime waterfront space.

Its programme of avant garde contemporary installations has seen some residents cancel their membership, and brought calls for more exhibition space expressly for local artists.

The gallery used to be part-owned by the Newlyn Society of artists, and they had the right to exhibit there. Shades of the long-running struggles of Scotland’s own artists’ societies, perhaps.

The Newlyn School of Art teaches traditional artistic skills but also encourages people to “loosen up”.