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Thoughts about the art of Cornwall

A conversation between Karel Spizer & Christopher P. Green


Karel Spizer: So Christopher, tell me, why did you move to Cornwall?

Christopher P. Green: The short answer is space. The long answer is Alfred Wallis appeared to me in a dream and his magpie pointed its beak to a blank postcard with a crude charcoal outline, which I understood as one of Bob Law’s canvases, or a symbol of one.

KS: Were you interested in Alfred Wallis’s work?

CPG: Yes, I am, and have been for a long time now - the work and the character. There’s a lot of, call it mystery, which surrounds him. To explain what I mean (speaking consciously of the fact that in doing so, as someone who clearly didn’t know Alfred Wallis but has read some, and by no means all, of the literature published about the man, I am liable to perpetuate and add to the myths) Wallis was a man who lived and worked in St Ives Cornwall for most of his life; he lived in a very small cottage on a lane behind Porthmeor Beach with his wife. He began painting when his wife died, for company, and chose to live and work downstairs only thereafter. The house is really very small, even by typical Cornish village standards. One day, when working on some paintings, with the front door ajar, two metropolitan dandies by the names of Mr Ben Nicholson and Mr Kit Wood were holidaying in Cornwall and happened to stumble upon Wallis’s house on their way to ‘The London Tate Gallery’s Department of Outreach for Cornwall England’[1] to admire some of their pictures - or possibly the beach, I can’t remember - when Ben stopped to admire some of Wallis’s paintings, believing them to be works of savage genius. Nicholson snapped up some of the small paintings, made using boat paints and scraps of cardboard, and later wrote to his friend Jim Ede of Tate Gallery London raving about this painter he had discovered in the most unlikely of places, insisting that he look him up and himself acquire some of his works. Wallis had no idea about the Art World, in which these two upper class men were deeply rooted, and was taken aback by their enthusiasm for the works. Wallis was much older than his London-based admirers and was not particularly interested in cultivating a professional career. He maintained a correspondence with Jim Ede, who gradually amassed an impressive collection of Wallis’s paintings, hanging them on the walls of his home, Kettle’s Yard, in Cambridge England. Over the coming years Nicholson would see to it that Wallis’s works were included in some exhibitions along with his international contemporaries. Wallis remained in Cornwall and was later admitted into a home for the poor where he subsequently died, alone. His resumé of exhibitions, until a fashionable London dealer took an interest in the artist and put together an exhibition in 2015, was slim.

KS: Thank you for that story. So what do you think about the legacy of Alfred Wallis, now that you’re also living in Cornwall?

CPG: Well, I’m not sure who handled his estate when he died. I think he had very little family around, where his wife had long since passed, and they had no children. The works that Jim Ede bought now reside at his Cambridge home, which is open to the public. Some other works pop up in various auction houses; the asking prices, up until the aforementioned dealer got involved, were always relatively low. I mean, it figures though; Wallis wasn’t a professional artist like Ben Nicholson, who would almost change his style of painting depending on what was in fashion, and the history books had all but written him off as a naive artist.

Now, I’m not going to try and make a case for Wallis, that’s not my interest. I think it’s enough if people find out about him the way I did, following their own curiosity. I went to Tate St Ives Cornwall many years ago hoping to see an impressive display of his work only to find one, or at most two, of his works hanging in a corner. I realised some years later, possibly from speaking to my gallerist Hannah Barry who’d studied in Cambridge, that Jim Ede’s house was the place to go if one wanted to see Alfred Wallis’s work en mass. So I made the trip to Kettle’s Yard soon after. As for Wallis’s house, it’s now a B&B, with replicas of his paintings hanging on the walls.

KS: Oh, I didn’t know that. I’ve seen that house from the street. Have you ever been inside?

CPG: Not in person, but I’ve seen the interior on the listing for the B&B. This kind of thing is to be expected though, especially in St Ives, which has been growing in popularity as a holiday destination, I think ever since the decline of the local fishing industry during the Victorian era. Maybe it would have been nice to have it preserved or restored like they did with Barbara Hepworth’s micro citadel, but Wallis didn’t seem to have anyone looking-out for him and his legacy. But there’s a plaque and a comparatively more substantial monument to his place in St Ives’s art history in the form of a tomb tiled with designs by Bernard Leach in the graveyard adjacent to Tate St Ives. Last time I checked, the former St Ives studio of Sven Berlin, author of The Dark Monarch, had the window’s blocked up and was otherwise left to ruin - no plaque there[2].

I did briefly have a studio on the same street as Alfred Wallis’s old home, at Porthmeor Studios. I chose this studio over ‘Ben Nicholson’s old studio’[3], which was also Patrick Heron’s old studio, out of a curiosity for making work in a similar space to that which Wallis would have occupied. The studio I rented faces the street, like Wallis’s house, and has a single domestic sized window at each end; one looking out onto the street, the other facing a courtyard, behind which is Porthmeor Beach. The studio I had is the downstairs of a once two-up-two-down house, with the dividing wall removed to make one long room, which suited me well as I work flat and was able to have a line of tables set up. I also organised a couple of events whilst I was there, so I was using the street-facing window as a place to hang posters to invite in passers by. Wallis’s paintings are all boats and the sea - he was a painter of sea(e)scapes. What I find in the paintings is firstly a sense of introspection. His house faced the street, he didn’t need a constant visual reference to the sea in order to paint the sea.

KS: OK, so Wallis aside, because I think it’s important to say that you didn’t move to Cornwall to resurrect the spirit of Alfred Wallis, are you interested in the St Ives School?

CPG: You’re quite right. And that story remains open for edits. OK, by the St Ives School, I take it you mean the painters like Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton..? So I’ll answer that by saying: some more than others, and not so much as a ‘school’.

KS: I think we’ve got some ground to cover here, so just before we move on, I’d like to return to this idea of ‘paintings in corners’. For example, I presume you saw the Mark Rothko work that was quite literally stuffed into a corner at Tate St Ives?

CPG: Haha, of course, it’s so funny. I’m not sure if it was some kind of inside joke between the art installers and curators. I really like it. I’ve often mentioned it to people, and most people feel the same. It seems to make everyone smile, and maybe for different reasons.

KS: Because they don’t feel like Rothko has a place in a gallery that was effectively built to promote the legacy of the St Ives School?

CPG: I suspect some people, the nationalists out there, enjoy seeing the high priest of American Abstract Expressionist painting stuffed into a nook. Ok, sorry, I’ve got to say more about this nook itself, to provide anyone who hasn’t seen it with a better visual: from my memory the location is as one exits the final room in the original part of the Tate, the one that feels uncannily like the low ceilinged galleries in Peggy Guggenheim’s house in Venice - complete with an Alberto Burri work too - just before the new extension starts, and just before one is steered around into the atrium gallery, which is also not a thousand miles from the Solomon Guggenheim gallery in New York, with its curved walls. At this point, passing through an opening in the wall, you turn and catch the Rothko painting. Hold on — there’s perhaps a whole thesis which could be produced on this painting’s placement alone, so I’m going to bow-out now. I’ll leave that to someone else to get stuck into as it really isn’t my agenda, but nonetheless it’s probably one of the most entertaining hangs of a work, especially when compared to the reverential ‘Rothko rooms’ at Tate Modern. What the painting’s presence alludes to - and perhaps at the hope of the painter Peter Lanyon - is The St Ives School of painters’ connection to the canon of Abstract Expressionism. Its stuffing into a crevice, segregated from the rest of the artists, kind of suggests another reading..

With this in mind, and returning one of your previous questions of my interest in the St Ives School (of painters), in terms of the figureheads, the big names, my interest goes about as far as Patrick Heron and Terry Frost for the following specific reasons: Heron’s committed efforts to write about the work being made in Cornwall and to fight for its place on the international stage, and of course those late, great, garden paintings. With Frost, it’s largely his biography as a working-class person making personal explorations through painting, whilst trying to make ends meet financially; Frost was a soldier in World War Two and later detained as a prisoner of war, the story goes [4]. During his time as a POW he was encouraged to paint, and at the end of WWII he returned to the UK, began to study art and soon after moved to St Ives where he initially lived in a caravan, and worked a job making sandwiches for holiday makers. At that time, St Ives then was ‘the place to be’ if you were an aspiring avant-garde painter living in the UK.

I myself am from a working-class family. On my father’s side, I’m the only person who received a university-level education. One of my grandfathers was a prisoner of war for a number of years during the same war as Frost, albeit in the far east. I’m the first of my family - on both my mother and father’s sides - to call themselves an artist. There’s a sense of relative humility to Terry Frost’s artistic career. For Heron it was quite different; from a young age he was surrounded by artists and he produced chic fabric designs for his father’s business whose factory was located in St Ives [5]

I think it’s worth pointing out that most young people pursuing the life of an artist at this time were able to do so because they had the safety net of a family trust fund. You’ll even find accounts of them bemoaning said stipends when they simply aren’t enough to allow them to sustain the life of an artist. Class is something to be aware of when discussing these life situations. I’m by no means saying someone from the upper-classes cannot be an artist, nothing at all like that; like many artists I’d much rather that this tiered system simply didn’t exist and things could be levelled out. Art, after all, is not a competition, regardless of how many prizes and awards continue to suggest so.

KS: I won't name names, but I think I know the artists you’re referring to...

CPG: OK, but to be clear I’m not actually referring to anyone in particular. This relatively unspoken issue of disparity between people working in the arts isn’t limited to St Ives and/or Cornwall. And what would even be the point of calling people out on it? The information is already out there in the memoirs and biographies of countless dead artists. It’s not as though the market for so-and-so’s art is going to be (negatively) impacted by the public’s realisation of the fact that their family’s money enabled them to travel the world, maintain studios and organise decadent soirées during times when the rest of the world were living in fear of bombs destroying their homes.

KS: Moving on from this, I dare say that when people with so-called ‘high-minded ideas’, and calling themselves artists, transplant themselves into rural settings, they’re often met with hostility from the local inhabitants.

CPG: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I guess it’s subject to their level of respect for their new neighbours and their willingness to share something with them. Being mindful of what you can bring to the table, and understanding that everyone has a role - or two, or three - in this world. On that note, I should say that I’m also very interested in the character and painting of Marlow Moss - radical at the time and, until recently, pretty overlooked in the history books. This idea of feeling threatened by ‘outsiders’ is what isolated Moss from the artistic elite upon arriving in West Cornwall [6], and it’s a mindset that sadly continues today among some artists here. Maybe it’s the artist’s ego at play; this constant desire to be recognised as the most important artist, who’s making the most ‘Cornish’ art? I mean, the same unhealthy competition exists in countless major cities around the world, yet there there’s more of them - hungry artists - and of course daily life has a faster pace in these places and so there’s usually a greater sense of potential in terms of one’s work finding an audience without having to pander to legends of the locale.

KS: It’s easy to see the influence of the landscape in the art that is made in Cornwall - that of both the past and present. Praise for the light, and familiar tropes such as rocks, witches, and ritualistic acts, appear commonplace. I don’t see these in your works. You mentioned Bob Law at the very start. I can see more influence there. You mentioned earlier that he made an appearance in your dream?



Bob Law
Drawing 10.5.59
pencil on paper, 25.3 x 35.5 cm, 1959, courtesy Richard Saltoun


CPG: Spooky stuff.. Well, Bob Law didn’t actually appear, rather a work that I understood to be his. He died in Penzance, and he spent some years, early on in his art career, in Cornwall. I think he had a revelation about space and ‘minimalism’ when lying in a field in Cornwall, which is where those ‘field drawings’ come from. I suppose it could be said that he awoke there - artistically - went away, and came back to rest. That was his life cycle - Cornwall was the drivetrain. He’s often cited as “a founding father of British Minimalism”. I can’t say there’s much, if any, sign of his legacy here though, unlike, say, Hepworth, Nicholson, Lanyon, or Frost.

KS: Bob Law also fabricated some of Donald Judd’s sculpture pieces, and you too have made furniture referencing Judd, albeit under the pseudonym ‘R.Crudd’.


Christopher P. Green
Ronald Crudd MKI bench (short version)
salvaged plywood, varnish, screws, 2018-2022, courtesy the artist


CPG: Some years ago I made a toilet roll holder for my old studio building that turned out to resemble a Judd wall sculpture. I’ve since kept the ‘R.Crudd’ name going, occasionally using it to author seating and desks for my exhibitions and various other projects. The criteria is always simplicity of construction, with pieces coming about via a process of up-cycling discarded materials. It’s in no way an effort to poke fun at Donald Judd or his work. It’s practical furniture, which I acknowledge and embrace as being Judd’esque.

KS: Would you consider yourself a Minimalist?

CPG: No, of course not. Are you asking because some of my paintings look minimal?

KS: I was just curious. In terms of some of your paintings, and in particular the ‘Between Together & Afar’ works, yes. In another interview I read of yours from 2012 (with R.C. Sheering), you’d spoken about Robert Mangold and Blinky Palermo..

CPG: In terms of Mangold’s paintings, the material similarity is that the ‘drawing’, that’s to say the pencil marks, happens last - it’s on top of the paint, as opposed to underneath it. Sure, both these artists work/worked in series or in sequences - a continuation on a theme.. but I don’t really see this aspect holding true for my BTAA paintings where I see them as more of a group, a family - a set of relationships. Palermo’s works on metal panels certainly got me thinking about the potential for ‘objectness’ in otherwise very flat paintings. You know the ones I’m talking about; I saw them for the first time at Dia Beacon NY in 2012, after the fact so to speak, as I started making the BTAA works in 2009.

When I decided that the sides would be painted, and in some cases the back (when there’s a riser block fitted to them), I was trying to make a more holistic painting. I’ve always been interested in the sides and backs of paintings. When you look at the sides, of course you inevitably find yourself seeing the front from a completely different viewpoint.

KS: I remember seeing the room of Agnes Martin’s paintings at Beacon, an experience that further cemented my appreciation for viewing paintings under natural light. Today, if I’m asked to look at a painting under artificial light I always ask if it can be taken closer to a window, or better still, outside!

CPG: That’s great! Ah, plein air.. yet here in Cornwall it’s more like rain air!

KS: Coming back thinking about to your move from East London to West Cornwall, and this need for space. What kind of space are we talking about?

CPG: Head space.

KS: Could you not have gained head space in London, through meditation or something along those lines of self-enquiry?

CPG: Perhaps. But even so, the city makes certain demands of people and too often its currents carry artists in directions that are often not healthy. Maybe they’re good for the ‘economy’, but often the art itself is the thing that suffers. There are countless artists who’ve fled cities, or, with those fortunate to have the means, keep one foot in the city and one foot/studio somewhere outside - this has been going on for centuries now. Of course there’s also lots of great and exciting art being made in cities the world over, but I did what I believed to be best for me and my work.

KS: So these new paintings, the large ones. Let’s talk about these. Maybe we can start with the origins?

CPG: To an extent, they’re a continuation.. I first worked on this group over the course of 2009 and 2010, making 32 paintings, and revisited in 2014, making a triptych. Seven years on from that and here we are: six BT&A paintings, made in Cornwall. All the works are different yet connected.

Lots of people see these works (the Between Together & Afar family of paintings) as being very neat - which, ok, they are, but they’re not ‘perfect’. One person could read these works as hard-edge painting - robust, yet they could also see them as subtle and fragile in nature. Perhaps it’ll help if I explain how I make them: I order large sheets of birch plywood, I cut them to size, I make cradles and fix them to the reverse of the cut panels. Then I begin the process of painting: sand, gesso, sand, gesso.. Next the ground colour is worked out and applied to the gessoed surface. After this I move onto painting the sides and top and bottom. I then mark out the circles and mix the colours for these. The colour of the circles is determined by combining the colour of the central ground with that of the sides: the left side is mixed with the central ground to produce the colour of the right circles, and the right side is mixed with the central ground to produce the colour for the left circles. The final stage is the drawing of the graphite line. I’ve used the same brand and weight of pencil for all of these paintings, from 2009 to present.

KS: Looking at the paintings, I see what you mean in terms of their subtle imperfection. I can also see that this is not a matter of fault. The fact that one can sometimes see the grain of the wood, be it on the face of the painting or the sides, reminds me of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s furniture; where at the bottom of a ‘perfectly’ painted, and ‘perfectly’ square chair leg, one discovers a small section of woodwork that is left far from ‘perfectly’ finished, save for its immaculate paint work.


Charles Rennie Mackintosh
Detail of ‘Settle for the Dug-Out'
painted wood, cushioning, 1917


CPG: I’m pleased you brought this up. Similar to the furniture from the Wiener Werkstätte too. As for Rennie Mackintosh, I remember reading an account of some findings after the fire in the library at Glasgow School of Art: the people clearing the site discovered that a lot of the timber used in its construction was actually of far less superior quality than they had previously assumed - a lot of it was effectively timber that had been up-cycled from shipyards. But I’m not sure what their exact reasoning for this was.. As for my paintings, they could be made to look ‘perfect’; that is to say their surfaces could be free of visible woodgrain or brush strokes, and the circles could be computer precise - this is all totally possible today.

KS: But they’d be lacking a certain degree of humanity?

CPG: Humanity, yes, and a level of honesty in terms of presenting and working with the materials chosen. For example: if I wanted the woodgrain to be completely unnoticeable this could be achieved by many more hours of laborious preparation, or I could not use wood as a support, and instead opt for a perfectly smooth surface to start with. With these works I’m not striving to show the ‘hand’ per se, but of course my ‘touch’ is there in the decisions made throughout their production. Nor is this a celebration of the materials; it’s more a matter of circumstance, as wood is, for me, available and workable.

KS: But I’m still curious: as you’ve been making these paintings for over a decade now, have you noticed any progression in terms of their refinement?

CPG: I’m not seeking to refine the paintings, I’m not practising painting circles or drawing lines in between making them. Even though the elemental structure and materials used are consistent throughout, I’m approaching each one as if it were the first.

KS: With a beginner's mind?

CPG: A beginner’s mind with a long distance memory. I’ve always used my human memory first over or, at least, before calling-on the printed or digital memory, by which I mean photos of things or previous works.

KS: So, you use this ‘long distance memory’ when recalling previous paintings and their respective colour schemes? One of your recent paintings is titled BT&A (Brown #3) - Long Distance Memory, a very dark brown, almost black, almost monochrome. Perhaps you can provide some insight into this work.

Christopher P. Green
BT&A (Brown #3) - Long distance memory
acrylic and graphite on birch and pine panel, 112 x 70 x 4.2 cm, 2021, private collection


CPG: Yes, I’m not trying to repeat, but if I think to myself “I would like to make another red painting”, I don’t see this as some kind of crime, because of course it could never be the same as the previous red painting. This is why I prefer to call the BT&A paintings a family rather than a series; they’re all related, but no two are exactly the same. The recent dark brown painting is indeed almost monochrome (viewed from the front at least), a quality I’m consciously engaging with. So much so, that the circular elements barely make themselves present at first glance. Who doesn’t love Monochromes? All that pure colour. But this painting isn’t a single pure colour; the ground is ‘Van Dyke Brown’ darkened further still with the addition of ‘Lamp Black’, and then the circles are a concoction of this and the painting’s side colours; yellow-orange and soft pink respectively.

KS: These paintings are quite large, by your standards. I know you tend to work mostly on small panels - a curious size - not too dissimilar to say a notebook or paperback, or even an iPad.

CPG: Around the end of 2013 I said to myself that I only wanted to make small paintings, and so arrived at the size you speak of; 24cm tall by 15cm wide. I had thought that I would stick to this as a kind of rule moving forward. I mostly have. I’m not rigid though - although some people no doubt come to the conclusion that I am when they see the BT&A paintings. The, let’s call them, ‘small paintings’, were a way to loosen things up at the time I made the first panels; I could throw all sorts of ideas onto them and the set size would hold them together, so to speak. I hear a lot of painters say they find small paintings difficult to make, but for me I find the intimacy liberating.

KS: You usually work on multiple small paintings at the same time, to prevent them from stagnating, or perhaps to avoid slipping into the quicksand of doubt.

CPG: I try to keep between 3 and 5 going together at one time. I try to keep them all moving. But I’m not rushing. Little good seems to come from rushing something along. Some paintings come together, get figured out, quickly - in a matter of a few days - whilst others take a few years to get there. The small size is convenient in this regard whereby I put them on pause, away in their boxes and let them sit for a while.

KS: Yes, I remember seeing these long crates in your studio, but I had thought all the paintings contained within were finished works!

CPG: There are multiple crates, some containing complete works, and one containing panels that are yet to find completion. I call them ‘complete’ but immediately find myself looking for a better way to phrase what I mean...because none of them are really singular, having come into being at the same time, always side by side with another work. Now that I’ve been working with this approach to painting for some time I’ve quite a few of these not yet understood paintings, so often I pull them out further along in time and introduce them to ones I’m currently working on, so there’s a past-present working relationship active in the present.

KS: You’ve said before that your understanding of your paintings fades over time, leaving works open for revision and reinterpretation. Your perception of a work changes, placing you in a similar position to that of the viewer seeing the work for the first time?

CPG: Yes, which is why I have a slight issue with this notion of completion, or even understanding. Some of my favourite works of art, historically speaking, are those I don’t completely understand. I don’t subscribe to the seemingly popular opinion that art must be intently pedagogical. Attempting to figure things out is more interesting - more important - than being spoon-fed the answers.



Karel Spizer is a writer, musician, and spiritual teacher. She is itinerant.
Christopher P. Green is an artist painter living in West Cornwall.

'Painting, come radon chime' by Christopher P. Green was at Auction House, Redruth 20- 28 May, 2022. See www.christophergreen.org.uk for more info.

End notes:
1. Reference to present day Tate St Ives gallery. The gallery did not exist at the time of Christopher ‘Kit’ Wood and Ben Nicholson’s visits to Cornwall. It opened in 1993.

2. Next to toilet a block on Porthgwidden Beach, St Ives, Cornwall, UK.

3. Studio 5, Porthmeor Studios, St Ives, Cornwall

4. See, for example ‘The St Ives Artists: A Biography of Place and Time’ (book) by Michael Bird.

5. ibid

6. See, for example 'The lonely radical: Marlow Moss at Tate St Ives' (article) by Lucy Howarth, Tate Etc. 25 June 2019.