Nestled along the coast of West Cornwall, St Ives is a fishing town that quickly became a centre for modern and abstract developments in British art. A cultural and artistic haven since the late 1800s, St Ives has been known to attract and enchant artists from across the world. In 1939, sculptor Dame Barbara Hepworth and then husband, artist Ben Nicholson, settled in St Ives and established a base for the abstract, avant-garde movement in Britain.
With the end of World War II, a new generation of artists began to emerge, led by Hepworth and Nicholson. These artists had a shared interest in abstraction and a deep fascination with the coastal landscape of West Cornwall. Many used the shapes, forms, and colours of the fishing town as a source of inspiration in their work. This forward-thinking collective of artists became known as the ‘St Ives School’.
Denis Mitchell, an English abstract sculptor, was one of the artists who became an active member in this artistic community following WWII. From 1949-59, he acted as Hepworth’s assistant and personally worked on many of her sculptures. It was during this decade that Mitchell developed an interest in the purity of form and the manipulation of space. His sculptures, such as the gravity-defying Carn Galver II, 1968 and the sleek Roseveor, 1985, show a strong understanding of balance, line, movement and light.
Mitchell’s works, although abstract in form, remain rooted in the landscape of St Ives. Working primarily in bronze and wood, he often hand carved his works and hand finished his bronzes. Mitchell placed great emphasis on texture and material in the design and execution of his sculptures. It is a lesser known fact that Mitchell was not exclusively a sculptor, but also an aspiring businessman.
In an attempt to gain publicity for the growing St Ives art scene in the 1950s, Mitchell and his brother formed the company Porthia Prints. They encouraged local artists to submit original designs, which would then be screen-printed onto pieces of linen and sold as tablemats. Thirteen designs were chosen and, by 1955, they were being produced and sold exclusively through Heal’s in London. Amongst the artists featured were Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton, Denis Mitchell, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Patrick Heron, and Barbara Hepworth.
Despite securing several large orders and finding initial success, the company quickly ran into their fair share of complications. Their production method was calibrated for the manufacture of thirteen or fourteen prints of each design, which were intended to be sold in sets or singly. However, most clients requested sets of six different mats or varieties of individual prints, and Porthia struggled to keep up with demand. Furthermore, due to complications with the inks and printing method, the mats would often run and fade when washed, which make the surviving mats even more rare and precious. These production issues lead Heal’s to withdraw their support in 1960.
This November, we are delighted to offer works from the estate of an important St Ives artist in as part of MODERN MADE, a London auction focussed on Modern Art, Sculpture, Design and Studio Ceramics.
AUCTION | MODERN MADE: Modern Art, Design & Studio Ceramics | Thursday 14th November at 1pm
VIEWING | Tues 12th Nov 10am – 5pm | Wed 13th Nov 10am - 5pm | Morning of sale from 10am
LOCATION | NOHO STUDIOS, 46 Great Titchfield Street, Fitzrovia, London W1W 7QA