From Celtic Crosses to ‘Keef’ Richards: 1000 Years of Visual Arts in Penzance

From Celtic Crosses to ‘Keef’ Richards: 1000 Years of Visual Arts in Penzance

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Penzance is out there.

And we mean that both geographically and artistically.

Our position at the westernmost tip of the UK – among wild Celtic moors and even wilder seas – has bred a spirit of creative, bohemian freedom. It’s made Penzance one of the UK’s leading destinations for visual arts.

In this post, we’re going to look back over 1000 years of inspiring art in our streets, gardens, museums and galleries.

On the way, we’ll meet Newlyn School classics from Norman Garstin and surrealistic pear halves from Jim Moir.

We’re also getting help from Penzance’s Cornwall Contemporary gallery owner Sarah Brittain-Mansbridge, to add an expert’s eye to some of the picks from the remarkable Penzance canon.

She says, ‘We have such a thriving appetite for art here in Penzance. Painters, potters, sculptors, performers, musicians and poets have all continued to be drawn to the ‘otherness’ of this far south west corner of Cornwall.’

 

The Market Cross, circa 1000 AD

Medieval stone crosses in Cornwall were traditionally used as boundary markers, wayside crosses (to show the way), memorials, and market crosses to designate a place for meeting.

Penzance’s 1000-year-old market cross is the latter. This (almost) tonne of gorgeous granite stands seven feet tall and sits outside Penlee House in Penlee Park, but has lived in various spots in the town over its long history.

According to one RAS Macalister, writing in 1929, the cross features two figures, two knotwork panels (knotwork being a feature of Celtic art) and three field patterns.

We say ‘according to’ because the monument is worn by time, the artist’s work faded over a thousand years of festivals, wars, ceremonies and – who knows – Penzance lovers meeting at this familiar landmark. Evocative indeed.

Visit the Market Cross in Penlee Park, adjacent to the Penlee House Gallery and Museum.

The Egyptian House, circa 1835

The Egyptian House was an architectural collaboration between Cecil B De Milne, Syd Barrett and The Mad Hatter.

Actually, trustworthy sources suggest it was most likely designed by one John Foulston from Plymouth, but we don’t like to spoil a good (made up) story.

This truly remarkable Penzance building – all pharaohs, sphinxes and that remarkable palette of colours – sits amid the Regency splendour of our famous Chapel Street. It was said to be a copy of a museum in Piccadilly, London, built in 1812; and was also said to be inspired by the temple of Hat-hor in Dendra, Egypt.

It was originally owned by John Lavin, who housed his mineral collection here. Now it’s a self-catering apartment, shop, and the embodiment of Penzance’s flamboyant spirit through the medium of architecture.

Says Sarah, ‘I’ve walked past the Egyptian House almost daily over the last 17 years and I always have to stop to admire its bonkers and brilliant architecture. It’s appeared in Instagram selfies from visitors all over the world.’

Visit the Egyptian House at the top end of Chapel Street.

The Rain it Raineth Every Day by Norman Garstin, 1889

Painted by Newlyn School luminary (see next entry) Norman Garstin, this Degas-inspired work brings to life the airy, elemental openness of PZ in the darker months.

Things to look out for include the Queens Hotel, St Mary’s Church and – the star of the show in our view – THAT wave.

Any local or regular visitor will instantly recognise the burst of briny joy exploding over the prom – these ‘liquid fireworks’ are a feature of the spot to this day.

Interestingly, for many years, this most iconic of all Penzance paintings sat hidden away, like an embarrassing uncle, in the bowels of Penlee House Gallery and Museum. Why? Because the powers that be believed it would give a negative impression of our town.

If you’re a potential tourist, we believe in you: you can handle an image of Penzance in winter. But we would like to point out that it doesn’t rain every day.

The picture is regularly displayed in Penlee House Gallery and Museum.

Market Place by Stanhope Forbes, 1921

Stanhope Forbes was considered the father of the Newlyn School. His painting ‘A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach‘ (1885) brought national recognition to the group of artists settled in this village adjacent to Penzance.

However, he was also a prolific Penzance artist. While many of his Newlyn scenes are tightly focused character portraits, there’s a wonderful bustle to his depictions of our town in The Terminus (1925), Causewayhead (1943), Market Jew Street Thursday (1923) and Market Place (1921), reflecting a vibrant market town. You really get a sense of working people’s lives, something no doubt inspired by the Newlyn Schools’ love of French social realist painters and the ‘plein air’ movement, which depicted working people in their own surroundings.

The picture is also regularly displayed in Penlee House Gallery and Museum, as are other Forbes paintings.

The Vanity of Small Differences by Grayson Perry, 2020-2021

Moving seamlessly on 100 years from Stanhope Forbes to Grayson Perry might seem like a big ask for any blog post.

But in 2020, Perry brought a landmark exhibition to Newlyn Art Gallery and the Exchange that echoed many of Forbes’ recurrent themes.

The Vanity of Small Differences is six exuberant tapestries that see Perry ‘on safari’ as he examines the class differences of British tribes. His protagonist, Tim Rakewell, starts in a working-class household and moves through middle and upper class life, surrounded by all the accoutrements beloved of these classes (the ‘small differences’ of the title).

This exhilarating and humorous exhibition was like Forbes’ en plein air depictions on steroids – protagonists are overwhelmed by the colourful surroundings of their lives.

Adds Sarah, ‘This Grayson Perry exhibition was outstanding – such a treat to see such large-scale vibrant works from such a high-profile artist.’

The Exchange, in Prince’s Street, Penzance, regularly hosts internationally renowned exhibitions.

 

‘Comestibles Sir?’ by Jim Moir 

When showbiz figures turn their hand to art, the results can be, er… sketchy.

But not in the case of Jim Moir, AKA surrealistic comedian Vic Reeves. Jim is ‘classically trained’, having attended the Sir John Cass School of Art in London before turning to comedy. And when he finally picked up his brush again (someone has to say this) He Would Not Let It Lie.

Jim has had a hugely successful career as an artist and a close relationship with Cornwall Contemporary in Penzance, where a 2023 exhibition received much media coverage. The eclectic, exuberant and suitably bizarre collection ‘Comestibles Sir?’ featured Cornwall rocks (with knobs on), ‘Keef’ Richards, Warhol-esque tinned goods (a tin of SPAM slipping in a meaty Monty Python reference), and some gorgeous and colourful depictions of birds.

We really are lucky to have such a star talent exhibiting in our arty colony.

Says Sarah Brittain-Mansbridge, ‘We’ve now staged two solo exhibitions of Jim’s paintings and he looks set to become a regular exhibitor. His anarchic and inventive imagination has proved hugely popular.’

He also appears to love exhibiting in Penzance. He said in an ITV news interview, ‘I had five solo exhibitions around the country in 2022, and the one in Penzance was by far my favourite and also happened to sell the most paintings. So, I’ve decided to keep coming back.’

Cornwall Contemporary in Chapel Street showcases Cornish talent and visiting artists.

Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens, 2002

Away from the galleries now and out into nature. Tremenheere Sculpture Gardens is a one-of-a-kind experience, combining exotic and half-hardy sculptural plants with actual sculpture. The striking shapes of palms, bananas and bamboos combine with bold works by internationally renowned artists including five members of the Royal Academy of Arts – James Turrell, Richard Long, David Nash, Peter Randall-Page and Tim Shaw.

Says Sarah, ‘Any visit to Penzance surely must include a stop off at Tremenheere. The sculptures always looks so impressive immersed among the subtropical planting, and against the breathtaking vista looking towards St. Michael’s Mount on the horizon. The changing exhibitions in the gallery make it worth spending some time in this special place.’

A stunning experience.

Tremenheere Sculpture Garden is located near Gulval, just outside of Penzance.

Find out more about the arts in Penzance at our Penzance Art Galleries and Museums page.