‘At the very toenail of England’ – the influence of St Ives

by Alan Wilkinson

201“Cornwall is a windy place and nowhere far from the sea” is the opening sentence of Lions in the Way: A Discursive History of the Oslers by my mother, Anne Wilkinson.

I was thirteen in 1956 when the book was published, and if these words were not my first introduction to England’s most southerly and most westerly county, they were and have remained the most vivid.

Of all the coastal towns and villages of the rugged Penwith peninsula, which Barbara Hepworth described as “the remarkable pagan landscape which lies between St Ives, Penzance and Land’s End,” St Ives is unique in that it is surrounded by the sea on two sides.  To the north of the town is the Atlantic Ocean and Porthmeor Beach; to the east, the harbour, St Ives Bay and in the distance, Godrevy Lighthouse, which inspired one of Virginia Woolf’s best loved novels.   The light in Cornwall, which has an almost Mediterranean brilliance, is perhaps even more intense in St Ives than elsewhere in the county.

Of the countless artists from Great Britain and abroad who have visited St Ives, one of the earliest on record was that of J. M. W. Turner during a walking tour of Devon and Cornwall in 1811.  Four drawings of the town are in a sketch book in the BritishMuseum.  Whistler and Sickert spent part of the winter of 1883-4 in St Ives, painting in oil and watercolour.  But these were fleeting visits, without lasting significance on the work of these artists or on the life and reputation of the town.

Two disparate events in the 1880s were to have a profound impact on the literary and artistic reputation of St Ives, albeit they were not manifest until the mid-1920s.  In 1881 Leslie Stephen, Virginias Woolf’s father, discovered St Ives “at the very toe-nail of England”.  That year Stephen bought the lease of Talland House, on the hillside overlooking St Ives Bay.   From 1882, the year of Virginia’s birth, until 1894 the Stephen family spent every summer holiday in St Ives.  In one of the most celebrated passages of Virginia Woolf’s autobiography, the most vivid and sustaining memory of her childhood is described as follows:

It is of lying half asleep, half awake, in bed in the nursery at St Ives.

It is of hearing the waves breaking, one, two, one, two, and sending a splash of water over the beach …

It is of lying and hearing this splash and seeing this light, and feeling, it is almost impossible that I should be here;

Of feeling the purest ecstasy I can conceive.

The poetic descriptions of the sea that permeate The Waves (1931) are echoes of memories of Woolf’s childhood summers in St Ives: “The waves breaking spread their white fans far out over the shore …”

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