Second Homes and Other Pathetic Fallacies - Jon Sharples
In the 1930s Gertrude Stein famously said of Oakland, California, “there is no there there” as she reflected on the discovery that her childhood family home had been torn down to make way for a soulless development. It had lost its ‘sense of place’, to borrow a phrase from the gentrification consultants. If there is any place in the UK that seems to me to have there in spades, it is St Ives, with its crystalline waters and cobbled streets providing the setting for coexistence between Celtic magic and rational modernity that just shouldn’t work, but somehow does. To spend time there is to oscillate between feeling you are at the edge of the world, and the centre of the universe. The Hepworth sculpture outside St Ives’ quaint Guildhall, with its hanging baskets, would look perfectly at home outside the UN. Tate St Ives, a world-class museum that could hold its own in any capital city in the world, rises from amongst whitewashed fishermen’s cottages. International artists enjoy studio residencies in the same buildings as local fishermen mending their nets. Tropical palm trees line the road into town, while granite hills lead the way to Zennor. It is, quite simply, a place unlike any other.
And yet… all this is the gushing of a tourist. Sam Bassett’s family have lived in St Ives since the 1600s and it’s fair to say that he’s on a different trajectory to me. His grandad was a fisherman, as was his dad, before becoming Harbourmaster… that would be the same harbour that now has a Pizza Express and - worse - a Jack Wills and, in the summer months, a human statue coated in metallic gold paint, some 270 miles from Trafalgar Square. Every indignity visited upon the place is, for Sam, a personal provocation, but worse than all of that is that the fact that he and many of those he grew up with are now shut out of living there altogether, priced out by the buoyant market for second ‘homes’. Sam’s return to drawing in 2020 has produced a series of lamentations on this theme that is some of the most direct work he has ever made. For lots of painters, paintings can be like pandemics in that when they start the ending is so far off as to be inconceivable, but these works on paper, sometimes made at a rate of dozen a day, have given Sam what some people find in banana bread – the satisfying feeling of outcomes and accomplishment when living day-to-day is the only option. Coastal Development and New Zealand Cabbage in Cornwall 2 narrate a double tragedy in which greenfield sites are overdeveloped while so many houses sit empty for most of the year. Recurring motifs, as in Anvil Heart and Your Built on Sand With Mooring, are the iron mooring posts that stand in for Sam’s ties to and anchor in the area, contrasted against the shallow and precarious foundations of the new developments.
Samuel Bassett, Anvil Heart, Your Built on Sand With Mooring, Coastal Development, 2021
For years Sam has sampled, quoted and remixed his own paintings, heightening the sense that what we see on canvas is what his erstwhile gallerist Joe Clarke described as 'psychological cubism', where his inner and outer selves reveal themselves and coalesce. The most frequently repeated image of all is the disembodied head in floods of tears – a comically extreme personification of grief, often indistinguishable from the landscape and the great squalls that characterise St Ives’ weather at any time of year.
It’s a cliché of Romantic literature for the poet to be so overwhelmed by his own emotions that he projects false sentience onto the natural world around him – a tendency towards sentimentality that Ruskin called ‘pathetic fallacy’. In visual art, it’s sort of the other way around and we are more likely to perceive sentimentality and kitsch in the straightforwardly descriptive presentation of a landscape, and the introduction of elements that are self-evidently not to be taken literally are somehow afforded more breathing space. I’m thinking of the Winter Landscape in the big Anselm Kiefer show at the Royal Academy a few years ago in which the floating head of a woman rises above the field, spotted with blood-red watercolour; the martyr as a personification of the land, stained by the events of human history.
Anselm Kiefer, Winter Landscape, 1970. © 2014. Image copyright
The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence /
© Anselm Kiefer.
Samuel Bassett, Cold night Drowning, 2019
Another association that occurs to me is that that little-known work The Scream by Edvard Munch. Munch described his inspiration for the image as follows:
“I was walking along the road with two friends – the sun was setting – suddenly the sky turned
blood red – I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence – there was blood and tongues
of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city – my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling
with anxiety – and I sensed an infinite scream passing through nature.”
It’s a brilliant image, made no less truthful by the fact that the figure is so ludicrously OTT that he is the only one in the history of art to become a literal emoji. (I do sometimes wonder whether there is an emoji artist out there who was familiar with Sam’s work before they created the Loudly Crying Face.)
The figure on the bridge, symbolic of Munch himself, feels the cry of nature, a sound that is sensed internally rather than heard with the ears, and communicated in a synesthetic approach that says emotion can be a visual phenomenon.
The beaches of St Ives are not stained with blood, as in Kiefer’s image, but in Cold night Drowning Sam seems to perceive the landscape itself as churned up, crying its eyes out, eternally inconsolable at the ravages of change and the loss of that which will never be recovered. In Rock, a giant head lies on its side in shallow water and under a bruised sky, like a decapitated colossus, a ruin of a vanquished civilisation.
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893 © T
he National Gallery of Norway
Samuel Bassett, Rock 2021. ©
In the end, truth conveyed by a pathetic fallacy is phenomenological truth, the truth of experience, the truth as it appears to the experiencing subject – and it can perhaps be the most profound truth of all… not solipsistic, not isolating, but a glimpse directly into the consciousness of another human being.
The other striking way that Sam wears his inside on the outside is by the text that inhabits his pictures. Where Kiefer might inscribe his canvasses with ‘VALHALLA’ or some other mythological or literary reference, or Cy Twombly might reach for ‘AGAMEMNON’, or similar, to summon a grandiose association with the classical world, Sam often seems proactively to snuff out any danger of pretension by using vernacular language to ground his paintings in his everyday life in and around St Ives. Somehow the text always forms a natural part of the picturescape, rather than something separate from the action or overtly descriptive of it. The result is the feeling for the viewer of the fourth wall having been broken and a collapsing of time and distance caused by a reversal of the instinctive expectation that experience precedes language.
Like Tracey Emin, another national treasure of the British seaside, Sam employs lettering so recognisably his own that I can imagine typing this in Bassett Bold font. His flair for graphic impact is equal to that of the Die Brücke group, perhaps rooted in the same affinity for carved wood and antipathy towards bourgeois sensibility. German artists always seem to find their way into the symbolic forest, whether as a nurturing locale or a site of terror; the series of Sam’s works set amongst the beech trees suggests it has a similar pull on him. But if the forest is the locus of German subjectivity, for Britain, and ultimately for Sam, that place is clearly the sea (fishing quotas, anyone?).
Alongside subjective, autobiographical revelation, Sam’s work is ultimately about the interaction of the psychologies of individuals in a delicate, symbiotic relationship with the world that formed them and a conviction that people are made of place and places are made of people. A recurring vision as in Beach Comber and Up Trevalgon Hill sees the characters Sam has met down the pub or on the beach – caricatured as if at the merciless hand of Goya or George Grosz – embedded in the geology of the land, like the granite tors protruding from the ground, the exposed element of the layers of rock, stacked, slipping and balancing - a tectonic metaphor for the generations of people of those ancient Cornish lands and the hardy mining and fishing communities built upon them. Maybe this symbol of (pre)historic resilience is the perspective we need right now and always… I can’t wait to get back there.
Vigo Gallery Text by Matt Retallick
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.