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Penwith Gallery in Penzance yields a treasure trove of forgotten art in archive

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: March 19, 2014

  • Penwith Gallery's painting by Alethea Garstin - other works are still being authenticated.

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A TREASURE trove of historically important Cornish artwork has been discovered in one of St Ives' oldest galleries.

Paintings and sculptures by 'central modernists', who worked in the town alongside Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Bernard Leach, were unearthed in the Penwith Gallery during a major refurbishment.

They were found in a forgotten archive following the sudden death last year of well-known curator of 46 years, Kathleen Watkins.

Break free

The works date back to 1949 when the Penwith Society of Arts was founded by a group of "colourful and internationally famous" modernists wanting to break free from the traditional St Ives Society of Artists.

After originally exhibiting above a pub on Fore Street, in 1961 the society converted a sail loft and pilchard packing works into the existing complex of gallery space, print workshop, studios and cottages.

The treasures unearthed at the gallery include works by Borlase Smart – in whose honour the society was founded in 1949.

Also found was a painting by Alethea Garstin, dubbed 'England's leading Impressionist painter', as well as significant documents relating to the society and individual artists.

All the works are now in storage away from the gallery for safekeeping while the renovation undergoes its final touches.

Chris Buck, current chairman of the Penwith Society of Arts, said finding the treasures had been a fantastic experience.

He said: "It's unbelievable. We were clearing some old cupboards no one had access to any more when we came across one after another.


"We were very surprised with what we found – it's certainly historically important."

The gallery has refused to speculate on the value of the works until they have all been authenticated.

Mr Buck said: "We will now get it all thoroughly assessed and researched with a view to eventually putting it on display for the public and researchers when funds are available. We're proud to be relaunching the gallery as a proper home to some of Cornwall's best and most exciting artists and a centre for the community."

The Back Road West gallery, the second biggest in the town after the Tate, and credited with helping draw Tate to St Ives, plans to reassert itself as a showcase for the group and for art in St Ives.

A private view of the new gallery is planned for next Friday, launched by Tate artist-in-residence Linder Sterling. It includes a new studio gallery, sculpture garden, bookshop and café.

Linder said: "The Penwith Gallery is a dream of a space. Its impeccable art historical pedigree, from 1961 onwards, as the home of the Penwith Society with Hepworth, Leach and Nicholson at the helm, has created an international legacy."

A spring exhibition will showcase the works of members and associates.

There will also be a special retrospective of the work of former member and chairman of the Penwith Society of Arts, Roy Walker, including BBC archive footage of him in his studio.

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