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Cornish Inspiration: The Moors of Penwith.

This is the first in a series of posts that explore how Cornwall nurtures creativity. How its landscape, light and lifestyle has inspired artists, writers and sculptors - and became an area of enormous cultural importance. The Newlyn, and St. Ives schools, the organic shapes carved by Hepworth, the bold colours of Terry Frost - Ben Nicholson, Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, were all influenced by this rocky peninsula. International artists including Mark Rothko, and Naum Gabo traveled to Penwith for inspiration - and this tradition of artistic excellence continues today. The eccentric characters of West Cornwall live and breath this creative spirit - there is a real sense here that free self expression, total individuality and artistic endeavour is encouraged.

Modern day designers and artists can thrive there, the sea, landscape, light and general way of life encourages creativity - or at least see the world in a slightly different way. Perhaps that is why my Mother was so attracted to the area in her twenties - it is clear that the organic, and unconventional lines and forms of her jewellery are shaped by rock-pools, seaweed, shells and pebbles - but also by the culture of Cornwall.

Mum traveled to West Cornwall for the first time - to study how the thick fern-clad landscape of Penwith influenced the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. She was writing her university thesis on Hepworth, and wanted to visit the places that were referenced in her pieces. St. Ives is famously noted for its light - similar to that of France, or Italy, so became a magnet for painters and sculptors, but camping near these vast and desolate moors Mum was more interested in sketching the granite forms poking out of the gorse, than the pretty colours of the boats in the harbour.

The wind-worn granite also inspired Hepworth, who wrote about the “remarkable pagan landscape which lies between St. Ives, Penzance and Lands End”, and who saw great similarities between the grey figures on the moors with her own work. Hepworth’s organic shapes flow with the same energy as these granite forms - they have an unconventional confidence, subtle lines and rounded mass carved over millennia by the harsh winds of the Celtic Sea. The aesthetic of Mum’s work was certainly inspired by her love of Hepworth’s sculptures - but in loving her work, she was drawn to the shapes of Penwith’s natural rock forms, and felt a connection to their windswept poise. 

I know that on the days when she needs some inspiration for a new commission or collection, she drives to her studio along the ‘North Coast road’. Cutting up over the hill at Heamoor, and down past the ancient stone walls, onto the dark rusty bracken of Morvah. It really is the most beautiful commute imaginable, through the pagan landscape described by Hepworth. The cattle grids buzz as you go over them, with the sea on one side, and the moor on the other, it is a landscape that is as barren as it is inspiring. It feels timeless, ancient and raw.


Sometimes, if the sun is in the right place in the sky, she will pull over and walk the dogs along the coast-path. The stone walls are laced with foxgloves and bluebells in the summer, and the figures of granite watch over you from the hills. The moor, and the road that winds through it have this vastness, and weather-worn emptiness that feels wild, like the surface of an outer-hebridiean island.


The ancient landscape has an atmosphere about it that is emulated with her work. The granite forms carved by the wind, with slow and subtle angles that can be seen in the shapes that she creates in wax. Some of the piles of grey scattered among the gorse have this deliberate and almost sculpted stance. They are shaped by the same gusts of wind as the hills they sit on, and share a mutual direction - they fit together naturally and effortlessly, something that over time happens between a piece of jewellery and its committed wearer.


Standing on a high-point of the moor, the natural granite flows that erupt from the rusty bracken are co-habited by structures made by man. The clean black road cuts through the gorse, and the ruins of engine houses stand proudly, harking back to the areas’ industrial past. Granite stone walls roll bravely against the gusts from the sea, and tough farm buildings are dotted along the landscape. The orange bracken contrasts wonderfully with the rich green grass, and the jet-black Aberdeen Angus bulls eating it. Man’s hand has transformed the landscape - but over time, nature has beaten these settlements into submission. The engine houses are softened by the wind, and the farm-building’s thick granite walls are weathered.


The stone figures that cast their shadows long over the rusty bracken share a likeness. Windswept curved edges, soft cracks and arches. But some have more mysterious origins than others. Lanyon Quoit, a granite structure on the moor above Morvah fits perfectly into the landscape. A long, flat slap of rock suspended over three upright supports, it is weathered and carved by the wind, and has sat in place for millennia, but it is manmade. It is thought to have been built around 3,500-2,500 BC, before the pyramids were built in Egypt - an incomprehensibly long time ago, and there is no substantial evidence to explain exactly why is was built in the first place. The top part of the sculpture weights 13 tons, it would have required incredible effort to build, and no-one really knows why it is there. Its beauty lies in its mystery.


In the miles of moorland surrounding Lanyon Quoit there are hundreds of similar ancient mysteries. Bronze Age burial chambers, forts, cairns and mysterious granite structures. Placed deliberately, and with immense effort, these monuments have been a source of inspiration for artists and sculptors for generations. Men-an-Tol, a circular disc of granite, upright in the ground with a large hole in the middle, inspired Hepworth - who referenced these ancient structures in her work. She echoed the forms created by our ancestors.


There is an atmosphere around these ancient sites - a sort of silent wisdom, a grace and power that has stood the test of time. West Cornwall, and Penwith in general have unexpected amount of these neolithic structures. They are embedded into the landscape, monuments to our ancestors and symbols of our early creativity and devotion. Some are more simple than others, but the thing that they share is the connection to nature. They have been carved by the wind, partially buried, and weathered. Worn by the elements, they are beautiful because they bridge the gap between what is manmade and what is natural. They are a dance between deliberate sculpture, and organic natural erosion - and this is something that is also achieved in Mum’s work. An organic, weathered form that over the years becomes part of the personality of its beloved owner.

 Penwith’s rich artistic heritage is influenced by its geography - the sea on three sides, and thick moorland hiding ancient stones in the middle. It is remote, far from anywhere - and so the people who live here are fiercely independent and by virtue of where they live, inspired.

Written by George Nixon. 

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