The Special Quality of Light in St Ives
It is said that the seaside resort of St Ives in Cornwall, England has a special quality of light that makes it unique. Indeed this special quality of light is renowned for having attracted generations of artists to the town, which even to this day boasts a large community of artists and is home to the Tate Gallery.
But what do we mean by the quality of light and is St Ives really unique in this respect? Of course we are not the first to have posed this question. The BBC programme “Coast” also asked it and brought along a visual studies expert in an attempt to answer it. The conclusion was that the air is very clean and that the colour temperature was shifted to the blue (cool) side by reflections from the sea and the sand. Whilst this is no doubt true, we felt a little sold short by this conclusion so here we would like to pursue it a little further.
Light and the Emotions
We all know that light affects how we feel. Our emotions on a warm sunny day are very different from how we feel when it’s grey and cloudy and a prolonged absence of bright light can have a long term deleterious affect on our emotions; such deprivations can cause seasonal affective disorder (SAD) from which around 7% of people in the UK suffer, particularly in the north of Britain.
In a recent scientific paper entitled “Spectral quality of light modulates emotional brain responses in humans” G Vandewalle and his co- investigators looked into how light affects mood state in the long term. They used functional magnetic resonance (brain scans) to test whether short term exposure to light changes emotional brain responses and found a strong correlation between them and the spectral quality of light.
Thus light quality is critical to how we feel, and it is not just in the summer. Light quality in the winter months can be at least as important to our moods as in the warmer months, for as T S Elliot wrote in his poem Little Gidding:
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
So does the quality of light in St Ives affect positively the mood of the people who visit and live there? Unfortunately a recent study conducted by the Universities of Sheffield and Manchester did not find St Ives to be in the top ten of happiest places in England; the happiest place was found to be Powys, followed by Manchester, West Lothian, Cumbernauld and Macclesfield, none of them particularly renowned for their light quality. The most miserable place in the UK, perhaps a little surprisingly, is Edinburgh.
Light and St Ives Artists
Although many artists have and still do find both the climate and the light quality of St Ives conducive to their work, it would be overstating things to claim that these are the only reasons generations of artists have made St Ives their home.
In fact St Ives has been the home to artists since at least the latter part of the nineteenth century following the Great Western Railway Cornwall extension in 1877; though at that time the artists’ colony at Newlyn, a small town just south of Penzance on the opposite coast, was more influential. Attracted by the scenery and the serenity of this then remote locale, the immigrant artists tended to enjoy a semi-communal blend of life and work - living was cheap and loving was easy; the models were also inexpensive.
Their post Impressionist paintings often depicted highly realistic visions of life by the sea; of fishermen and boats; of tragedy and shipwrecks; and the quality of light is clearly depicted in much of their work.
When today one thinks of St Ives artists it tends to be in terms of more modernist styles. The new modernist movement began with pottery. The Leach Pottery (which still exists to this day) was set up by Bernard Leach in 1920. Along with his colleague Shoji Hamada they created a highly influential fusion of Japanese and Western styles.
One of St Ives important painters of the time was a local fisherman. Alfred Wallis, fisherman and marine store keeper, began painting in 1922 when he was 67 years old. His paintings, often depicting the sea, boats and St Ives, ignore all normal rules of perspective and scale; produced using cheap paints on cardboard these paintings are amazingly powerful creations.
In 1928 St Ives was visited by the established artists Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood. They met and were influenced by Alfred Wallis who was introduced into their circle of artists and began what was to become the St Ives Artists Colony. Many other important artists joined them including Ben Nicholson, and Barbara Hepworth who moved there in 1939 along with the sculptor Naum Gabo, a member of the Leach Pottery.
By the mid 1940’s many other artists with a penchant for modern and abstract art were arriving on the scene. Certainly many of their landscapes and seascapes were inspired by the wonderful light and scenery that surrounded them. Some famous members of this group were Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter, Piet Mondrian, Maurice Sumray and too many others to name.
All of these great artists can’t have been wrong. They experienced a special quality in the light and climate of St Ives that they considered to be unique, so let us look at these in more detail.
Climate of St Ives
Intuitively there must be a correlation between climate and the quality of light. Here St Ives does feature as enjoying the warmest and sunniest aspect in Great Britain.
Technically the climate of Cornwall is classified as temperate Oceanic and the county is both the sunniest and the mildest in the UK. In an average year the county enjoys 1,540 hours of sunshine and during July the sun shines an average of 7.6 hours a day.
There are two important geographical factors that contribute to this climate. They are the fact that Cornwall is the county with the most southerly latitude and it benefits from the effects of the Gulf Stream which brings in warm Caribbean air; in St Ives palm trees are a common sight.
These benefits are just as important in winter as in summer, and the result is that generally Cornish winters are the warmest in the UK; frost and snow are very rare events in St Ives even when other counties are snowbound.
Despite the climate of St Ives being mild, it is also very changeable due to its proximity to the sea. Days that start off cloudy can often end up sunny; sometimes days that start sunny can develop a general mizzle that rolls in from the sea and which, being neither mist nor drizzle but some combination of the two, can soak you to the skin within minutes. Overall rainfall is higher than in the Southeast though Cornwall is still the driest place in the West. The sea also buffers temperatures and extreme heat and cold are rare, though spectacular storms are not at all uncommon during the winter months.
Light and the Geography of St Ives
The natural light we observe has several different components. Firstly there is direct light from the sun, then there is scattered light from the sky, diffused light through clouds and mist, and reflected light. The tonality of reflected light is modified by the surface from which it is reflected; light reflected from a red surface will have a higher red component than light reflected by a mirror. When light is reflected it also changes phase. When light is reflected from shallow water, part is reflected from the surface, part is refracted by the water and is subsequently reflected by the sea bed. There is more to light than meets the eye…
The immediate geography of St Ives is interesting. Porthmeor Beach more or less faces north and enjoys the Atlantic rollers that make it such a famous beach for surfing. Porthgwidden Beach looks eastwards and is an excellent sun-trap. Separating these two beaches is “The Island”, a small peninsular that juts out north-eastwards. The sheltered harbour beach faces southwards and family-friendly Porthminster Beach faces the northeast across the Celtic Sea.
These sandy beaches and the surrounding seas reflect and scatter sunlight of varying hues. These change as the day progresses and the interplay of direct light and reflected rays and can often produce an almost magical ambiance which casts a glow over the whole town.
Although difficult to quantify, it is likely that this unusual geography is to a large extent the reason for the exceptional quality of light in St Ives.
The quality of light in St Ives is special and to at least some extent its quality can be attributed to the climate of the region and the special geography of the town and its surroundings. It is not something that can be quantified; it is ephemeral and continually changing; it is a primary reason why so many artists have made St Ives their home; and it is also a reason why a St Ives holiday can be such a joyful experience.