Today, St Ives is renowned for its artists, but the town’s history stretches back beyond this to a thriving fishing industry.
Part of what enduringly captivates visitors to St Ives is the physical landscape of the town: its narrow streets, harbourside, fishing lofts and shoebox cottages.
You might even recognise these settings within the works of famous artists like Lamorna Birch and Ben Nicholson, but it’s easy to forget that St Ives had a long history before it became a creative destination.
The town takes its name from St Ia, an Irish princess and evangelist, who floated across the Irish Sea to Cornwall on a leaf. When she died during the reign of King Tewdar, she was buried in what is now St Ives, with St Ia’s Church built over her resting place. The later town then grew around this church, reaching down towards the shore.
St Ives and the sea
As a coastal town, St Ives is naturally shaped by its relationship with the sea. Throughout the years, ships came and went – some were even wrecked in the bay – and cargoes came into port. Among the goods most commonly brought ashore were fish, and lots of them. Even today, if you walk to the entrance of Smeaton’s Pier, you’ll find St Leonard’s Chapel, where, since medieval times, fishermen have gone to pray before heading out in their craft.
Fishermen still work in St Ives Bay, but their numbers are low compared to the height of the town’s fishing industry. In the 1700s, men went to sea to catch pilchards and herrings, for which they paid a tithe (10% of their haul) to the borough. When the fishing boats came into shore, their catch would be loaded into baskets, with around 100-200 fish to each, and these would be handed out to shareholders and the borough’s agent. In this way, fish literally formed part of the town’s currency.
The humble pilchard features heavily in St Ives’ history. Described in 1603 as ‘the least fish in bigness, greatest for gain, and most in number’, it became a local staple of the industry. With large shoals being fished in a short period of time, it was necessary to find a way of preserving the fish for longer-term use, and for export. This was done by smoking, pressing or pickling, with the fish being salted first. If fish were due to be sent to France, they were simply salted and packed in large casks called hogsheads, but for warmer countries such as Spain and Italy, they were first ‘fumed’ or smoked. In the narrow labyrinth of St Ives’ streets, you can still see some of these old pilchard works and cellars.
Pilchard fishing became big business for St Ives, with a year’s catches here often exceeding those of all other Cornish ports put together. In one day in 1857, over 57,000,000 pilchards were caught. However, by the late 1800s, the industry was in decline, and by the 1900s, it had all but died out. This was partly because the pilchard shoals moved away, and partly due to the introduction of steam vessels, which could travel more easily to nearby Newlyn.
However, the fishing history of St Ives still shines through, as many of its present-day galleries and studios are housed in former sail lofts and pilchard works. As you walk the winding streets, take a closer look at the buildings and you’ll see glimpses of their previous use.
Transition to artists’ town
Even during St Ives’ fishing years, it wasn’t unheard of for artists to visit, stay, and create works inspired by the area. Back in 1811, JMW Turner spent weeks travelling in Cornwall, producing scenes depicting St Ives. But with the introduction of the railway to west Cornwall in 1877, it became far easier to access this once-remote town. This, with the added allure of St Ives’ unique natural light, began to draw more artists to visit.
In 1928, Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood travelled to St Ives, meeting local fisherman-turned-artist Alfred Wallis. When war came in 1939, Nicholson settled here with his wife Barbara Hepworth, and a small creative cluster began to form. However, it was in the 1950s that the ‘St Ives School’ as we now know it came into strength. The construction of Tate St Ives in 1993 meant that their remarkable works and stories could continue to be told, and built upon, today.
Even here, at Una St Ives, you’ll find art at the centre of our inspiration. This year, we’ve launched our Artist in Residence programme, with resident artists including Jordan Amy Lee (until 18 July 2022) and Nina Brooke (following this). For more information, check our events pages.