What’s ‘New’ about the New Atlantic Wave?
26 October 2022
During the New Atlantic Wave exhibition, part of the Appledore Book Festival Fringe, a visitor asked me “So what is ‘New’ about the ‘New Atlantic Wave’. It is a good question. So here is an attempt to answer it with an answer that spans over a century of artistic lives, and reflects a new movement of artists and makers on the Atlantic South-West coast of Britain.
Art in the South West
To understand the historical significance of this new wave, we need to grasp the past arts movements which took root along the Atlantic coast of Devon and Cornwall. The Atlantic coastline of South-West Britain has been home to artists and makers for over a Century. In the 1920’s the St Ives School of Art was established. This followed on from the late-Nineteenth Century Newlyn School, pioneered by William Langley in the 1880s. Both communities in Cornwall, but later connections reached into Devon.
The 1920’s St Ives community saw Ben Nicholson’s beach-front studio at Porthmeor, become home to various artists; Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham amongst others. Francis Bacon took over studio 3 for six months in 1959, with Terry Frost in the neighbouring studio. Wilhelmina Barns-Graham was a hugely significant character in the St Ives story. Born in St Andrews in 1912 and she relocated to St Ives in 1940, a founder member of the Penwith Society of Arts. Barns-Graham’s abstract landscapes are important examples of the visual language she and her contemporaries such as William Scott and Roger Hilton pioneered.
In addition to the painters, sculpturer Barbara Hepworth, whose studio is now a major centre in St Ives established herself there in the 1920’s. She folowed Bernard Leach, and his friend Shōji Hamada, who founded their pottery studio. To this day, Leach is considered one of the most influential figures in British ceramics, with many famous potters training under him at the Leach Pottery. Bernard’s son Michael set up a pottery in Fremington, while his son, Philip, with his wife Frannie, still runs a studio in Hartland, both locations part of the New Atlantic Wave region.
Further along the Cornish Atlantic coast the Newlyn School was an artists colony from the 1880s until the early twentieth century. The artists were fascinated by the fishermen’s working life at sea and the everyday life in the harbour and nearby villages. Walter Langley is generally recognised as the pioneer of the Newlyn art colony and Stanhope Forbes, who settled there in 1884, as the father of it. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lamorna, a nearby fishing village to the south, became associated with the artist S. J. “Lamorna” Birch who lived there from 1892. These schools along with a related California movement painted En plein air. A tradition now being explored again in the New Atlantic Wave.
The later Forbes School of Painting, founded by Forbes and his wife Elizabeth in 1899, promoted the study of figure painting. A present-day Newlyn School of Art was formed in 2011 with Arts Council funding provides art courses taught by many of the best-known artists working in Cornwall today.
In this historical context of these Atlantic Coast artists the New Atlantic Wave, now in the Twenty-First century, has a new location, a diversity of styles and methods, and marks the emergence of a new generation of women artists.
Northern Devon Artists
Northern Devon, where W.M. Turner’s family came from and where he sketched in the 1811’s, has been largely ignored since the heyday of Charles Kingsley’s ‘Westward Ho! novel, and the decline of the tourist trade from the 1960s. It has never featured in the lexicon of the South West artists or the wider art world. In this context it is perhaps surprising to see the rise of a new artists and makers community. Comprising of a series of small coastal towns ranging from Lynmouth to Hartland, and numerous villages from Black Torrington to Brayford this is a hidden landscape of rolling hills, secret coves, battered headlands and meandering estuaries. It is a landscape now home to over 300 practising artists and makers, who are re-shaping not only their place in the world of arts and crafts but also the local economy.
There are clusters of artists in towns e.g. Ilfracombe with its legacy of Damien Hirst, and annual Art Trail of over forty artists, and in Shebbear, a small village, where an atelier trains hand-made furniture makers from all over the world. Equally, there are individual artists and makers working alone in converted bedrooms and temporary studios who collectively formed the foundations of the New Atlantic Wave.
A New Wave
This new wave of artists and makers use this unique range of landscapes to express a diversity of images and creative work. These range from the seascapes of painters Sarah Locket, Michelle Cartlidge, and Rachel Stanton to the ‘en plein air’ work of Deborah Last, and the atmospheric works of Christine Basil and Jill Harker. They work in different mediums from acrylic and oils to eco-printing, Lorna Shone, and re-cycling, Lisa White, reflecting contemporary concerns as well as long established traditions.
It is notable that the vast majority, over 80% in a recent survey, of this new community are women. The poor position of women in contemporary art scenes over the centuries is now well documented. From the treatment of Artemisia through the failure of the Royal Academy to elect another woman from its founding in 1768. to 1936. Additionally, in 2022 the fact that the top five wealthiest British artists are all male. All indicators of a failure to recognise the talents of half the population.
The emergence of a new wave of women artists is explained in part by the increasing public clamour for more representation in the visual arts and the movement within public bodies and commercial galleries to address this. However, it is not the complete answer as to why the New Atlantic Wave is so dominated by creative women.
Another factor is the flexibility artistic practice offers to women juggling care responsibilities, or working part-time, compared with full-time office or shop-based work. In addition, the sole trader status, where you have control of your time, and the ability to work on your own without a manager appeals to many people who seek independence. In addition, relatively cheap start-up costs for visual artists makes starting a career easier for people who do not have access to capital or training. The advent of the web tutorial has also made the physical isolation of this remote coastal region less of a problem with regard to skills acquisition.
Then there is a growing awareness of the need to have a voice. A presence. The desire to find expression within our society for those who are isolated, and unheard. At one recent seminar of artists over fifty percent identified as neurodivergent. At another event a panel of local artists in northern Devon identified the failing of traditional education to provide them with a solid basis on which to start a business or find their creative outlet. The New Atlantic Wave provides a new platform for artists and makers who have stepped outside the normal careers on offer in rural areas, and the tourist hot spots of the South West. Following Covid, the emergence of this group of creatives points to a new way forward for marginal regions and isolated towns and villages seeking to halt the outward migration of talent, and a more diverse economy.
What is ‘New’?
So to answer the initial question what is ‘new’ about the New Atlantic Wave’? Many things from its historical roots to its contemporary expression, but perhaps what is really new about it is that it is a movement in a marginal region of the UK giving new expression to artists and makers who until recently have been ignored.
This is the ‘new’ in the New Atlantic Wave.
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