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Cornish art at the London Art Fair 2008

Henry Garfit


Heralded by The Times newspaper as ‘The first major visual art event of the year, London Art Fair in Islington is a mecca for Contemporary and Modern British Art’. Last week saw the twentieth anniversary of the fair and a record 23,000 visitors over the five days with 5,000 people through the doors on Saturday alone.

The combined forces of the recent success of the more Contemporary commercial galleries in Cornwall and the last few years of stellar increases in market values for Modern British art (of which the St Ives artists of the early and mid Twentieth Century are a major part) means that art made in Cornwall has never been more in evidence at the London Art Fair than in 2008.
The Telegraph newspaper has suggested that ‘in its 20-year history, the fair has battled to be international and purely contemporary, but succumbed to the greater success of Frieze and Zoo (art fairs) and has now settled for a quieter compromise of local galleries that show at neither, and others that deal in historic 20th-century British art. The result is a healthy mix of highbrow and lowbrow to suit all tastes’.
Jonathan Burton, the London Art Fair Director, has suggested that the above comment is not an entirely accurate representation of the development of the fair over the past few years; stating quite rightly that ‘the fair has never been purely contemporary’ but ‘the fair attracts visitors who are looking for critically engaged, cutting-edge contemporary work, but equally there are people who are coming to buy a piece by L. S. Lowry’. However, one of the main exhibitors at the fair told me that there was certainly some direct encouragement from the organisers to have a strong showing of Modern British art perhaps at the expense of more contemporary work.
Contemporary art made in Cornwall was on show at stands taken by familiar Cornish galleries including: Belgrave, Goldfish and Lemon Street galleries. There were notable galleries from London and the provinces which are also significantly skewed towards Contemporary Cornish art including Edgar Modern, Messum’s, Advanced Graphics, Caroline Wiseman, Art First and Redfern galleries.
Among the highlights of work made by artists based in Cornwall today was a striking, large canvas entitled Leopard by Jesse Leroy Smith represented by Goldfish Fine Art, Penzance. Leroy Smith’s work includes many quite contrasting concerns such as the dignity with which Rembrandt composes his figures, the fluidity of Titian, and at the same time something human, real and yet intangible that is comparable to Marlene Dumas.
Joe Clarke from Goldfish has been showcasing some of the more challenging work to come out of Cornwall in recent years by taking a stand (in both senses of the term) at the London Art Fair since moving his gallery from St Ives to Penzance in 2002. During one of the few quieter moments at the fair he told me what a positive experience attending the London Art Fair had been in recent years. In bringing what he calls more ‘outsider’ art from Cornwall to both the fair and the recent exhibition Goldfish Fine Art held in East London, he has further affirmed his faith in the quality of a number of the artists coming out of Cornwall today through the sheer weight of interest they experienced whilst exhibiting in London. This faith was bolstered by a number significant sales at the Fair.
Belgrave Gallery from St Ives had a successful time at the fair with a number of works by their stable of artists selling including those by Sarah Poland, Virginia Bounds and Henrietta Dubrey among others. One of the strongest works exhibited by a Cornish gallery had to be the rugged scene in oil entitled Mountain Pass by Sarah Poland. There is something of the wrestled drawing process of Bomberg or Kossoff in her landscape paintings which arrests the eye and brings you back time and again to the best of her pictures.
Messum’s from London and Lemon Street Gallery pushed the reputation of arguably Cornwall’s most successful living artist Kurt Jackson yet further last week. LSG sold a very substantial work by the artist at the fair - a canvas for £38,000 - whilst Messum's held an extensive exhibition of his work across two Cork Street galleries which at the time of writing has, one week into the show, sold 95% of the more than 120 works.
Again at the higher end of the commercial spectrum works by the grand old masters of Modern British painting from Cornwall such as Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron, Sandra Blow and Terry Frost were selling for gigantic prices at the fair. Richard Green, the heavy weight of the London market, was selling a 1950’s Terry Frost for an astonishing £380,000. Beaux Art of London had a Patrick Heron from the 1970’s on sale for £220,000. Although these seem like vast prices they are nothing in comparison to the high prices achieved for works by the European and American contemporaries of these St Ives artists.
Talking to a number of Modern and Contemporary dealers at the fair it seems clear that with recent events in the UK economy making headline news; many attending galleries were holding their breath at the fair anticipating the possibility of poor sales this year. It seems that many of the galleries were pleasantly surprised that buyers came out in force to purchase both the Modern and Contemporary works on sale over the one hundred different stands at Islington last week. As the Director of the fair, Jonathan Burton, states ‘when so many people are talking about the market, this fair is in a position this year where people are considering it as a litmus test for the art market. Will the market slither? Continue unabashed? Will people continue to buy work? And because we are in such a good position this year, this is a good test for the UK market certainly’.
Perhaps the most important thing I noticed whilst at the fair was that, in my view, whilst recent artist led exhibitions in Penwith have been supported as a vital forum and provision of much needed exposure for more exploratory art created in Cornwall in recent years; there is no question that commercial risks taken by the likes of the Goldfish, Salt, Belgrave, Lemon Street and Millennium galleries should also get all the funding and moral support we can offer them for the part they play in finding locally based artists a wider audience.


Henry Garfit   January 23rd 2008