a text written for the exhibition FISHY MEN, MACKEREL SKIES, at Vigo Gallery / The London Collective, 17th March - 30th April 2021
Sam sent me a video link a couple of weeks ago. Alfred Wallis: Artist and Mariner, a mini documentary made in 1973, a glimpse into the life and work of Wallis through the reminiscences of those who knew and loved him. Unique Penwith voices, honest and warm, spoke of Wallis and his paintings, but also of a St Ives lost to the mists of time. They told of an artist who wasn’t the outsider art history has made him, but a valued member of a close-knit community. His paintings were known even before Ben Nicholson was apparently to discover him. The truth is, Wallis was never discovered, and all Nicholson did was give his painting a wider audience amongst the modernist glitterati of Hampstead. Sam’s family have lived and worked in St Ives for hundreds of years, forefathers would have no doubt known Wallis, after all, in a place the size of St Ives you know everybody.
When I first met Sam, it was at Porthmeor Studios, a few doors up from the cottage Wallis once filled with paintings on scraps of wood, card, and marmalade jars. Sam’s studio was overflowing, a real artist’s studio with paintings huddled, brushes and paints jumbled, and paper strewn across all available surfaces. It was refreshing; artists tend to spruce things up before a studio visit, make things shipshape, not here. There was such an abundance, and I was reminded instantly of Wallis, for whom painting, and drawing was a compulsion, it’s the same for Sam. The studio was above what was once his grandfather’s net loft, and on the paint daubed walls were a number of oil-paintings, modestly sized, hasty faces in greenish-blue cyan, one with the words ‘Time to Go!’ gutsily painted along the bottom edge. St Ives is often spoken of in terms of its quaint authenticity, an unspoilt seaside town, the best beaches in Britain, stunning views. For Wallis, and the generations of Sam’s family before him it was a place of fishing, hard work, a town pre-slum-clearance, distinctly Cornish. Since the mid-1930s, and with rapidly growing tourism, St Ives has been subject to a continuous tidying-up. Gone are the flat-roof pubs, sea-view council houses and greasy spoon cafes, enter instead yachts, sportscars, champagne and lobster lunches. To many it has become sadly stifling, tourist hordes, living costs rising, even standing room in the pub is no longer guaranteed. Time to Go!
Sam now lives near Madron, just outside Penzance. It’s a different world, a completely different rhythm and feel, it’s grey, ancient, mystical, melancholy, it’s testament to another time. As Patrick Heron once wrote, Penwith was a place where ‘a charmed, pre-Christian, un-English atmosphere haunts the headlands.’ There’s an eeriness, an unease; Alfred Wallis died in the Madron workhouse in 1942, the building still stands, most recently used as an abattoir.
It goes without saying that 2020 will be defined as the year we were forced to approach our lives differently. Sam of course is no exception, not only did he leave St Ives, where he worked for over a decade, but there was a marked change in his practice. He rediscovered drawing, and in doing so found a Cornwall he worried might be lost. As the world was locked-down, Sam picked up his pencils and pens and produced hundreds of drawings. At his new studio in central Penzance, I carefully leaf through them, sheet by sheet – the influence of his new life seeping in; the Penwith moorland a reoccurring theme, the wind-battered hills, the darkening sky. Words such as silence, empty and ancient, with references to the Cornwall of his heritage, granite milestones, Saint Peter, pilchards.
In retrospect, it seems a fleeting moment, but for a while the pandemic meant St Ives was relieved of the usual cacophony of visitors, and Sam was drawn back for an intensive week-long drawing residency. Although he had lived and worked in the town for the last decade, his time at The New St Ives School offered a unique opportunity, a week spent alone, to see the town afresh, to walk the streets without fighting through crowds, charting the changes as he went. The drawings made during this time are urgent and exasperated; figurative forms seen overwhelming the land, traditions disregarded, cottages eliminated in favour of grand-design coastal developments - ‘use it twice a year, Sloop wanker.’ One of the drawings shows two penises, side-by-side and erect, accompanied by the word ‘land’ stated decidedly underneath, it speaks volumes.
For some of these drawings, Sam, just like many artists before him climbed the hills above Zennor, spent time at Trevalgan, on the moors around Sancreed, and in doing so, the importance of landscape re-emerged. It’s in these drawings where land and figure fuse that we are reminded of paintings by Peter Lanyon in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Lanyon’s works in this period were becoming increasingly abstract but were at all times entrenched in actual place and experience. Sam presents a reality that is uniquely Cornish, or to put it better, particularly Penwith. He draws upon history, mythological iconography, and references lost industries such as mining, all as a way to explain the present. Sam is well aware of the artistic legacy of the area, and his lockdown drawings echo the witty irreverence of Sven Berlin, the dark anxiety of Karl Weschke, or the sinuous contours of Penwith as painted by Margo Maeckelberghe. Sam talks eloquently about these artists, as he does Cornish history, but maintains an inspiring individuality. So much of the art made in Penwith today simply emulates the past, apes mid-century styles; Sam acknowledges his antecedents and influences, but his artwork is at all times original. Even when making direct reference, for example to the forms of Bernard Leach pottery, or William Scott’s Mackerel on a Plate, the result is unmistakably his own. I have two of Sam’s drawings here at home in Liverpool, and I hold them dear. As I write this, another lockdown is announced, and Cornwall has never seemed so far away. The drawings are a place I know and love. No artist captures the experience of contemporary Cornwall in quite the same way. Warts and all, one and all.
Down Tinners (2020) by Samuel Bassett, courtesy of the artist and Vigo Gallery