Roy Ray, b.1936

In the 20th century, there have been few places in Britain which have accommodated and supported the development of radical artistic ideas as effectively as St. Ives, Cornwall.

One only has to look at a map to discover one of St. Ives’s key attractions: it is on the narrow Penwith peninsular, and it is, thus, enveloped in light, from all points of the compass - and the light is that particular, glistening, radiant light which is characteristic of those fortunate places that are bathed in the sea. Newlyn has its own south-facing, brilliance - and, when it first began to attract artists to settle, in the 1880s, it had its own Picturesque fisher-folk. But St. Ives has the light.

Trains bringing visitors all the way to St. Ives, via a branch line from St. Erth, arrived in 1877. Artists started to turn up in the town in greater numbers than hitherto[1]. James McNeill Whistler and his ‘pupils’, Walter Sickert and Mortimer Menpes, visited in 1884[2]. And, soon, there were artists from France, Scandinavia and North America, as well as the British Isles. David Tovey reports that, ‘from the outset, the colony was an international community with a cosmopolitan outlook’[3].

By the late 1880s, the ‘St. Ives Colony won a world-wide reputation as a centre for both the practice and teaching of landscape and marine painting, with artists from many different countries coming to study and work en plein air alongside British artists’[4]. Amongst this group was Adrian Stokes, who was an important influence on several younger - or less experienced - artists, including the future Royal Academician, Julius Olsson. The latter had settled in St. Ives in 1890 and, in 1895, he opened a school of art there, which established the former fishing village as a centre of international excellence for landscape and marine paintings.

And, thus, we come to Roy Ray. Olsson's St. Ives School of Painting had thrived for two decades, before being finished off by World War I[5]. But, in 1938, a School of Painting was re-established there, by Borlase Smart (who had studied with Olsson before the War) and Leonard Fuller. For both artists, renewing St Ives as a centre for painting had been a dream, fostered during the dark days of the First War. The School was an immediate success, attracting painters such as Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who were followed by Patrick Heron, Peter Lanyon, Terry Frost and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. The future of the School was secured, with help from the Arts Council, after the Second War and, during the 1950s, its reputation - supported by its nationally prominent artists - had never been higher. Once again, however, in the 1970s, with the death of several key figures, including Leonard Fuller, Barbara Hepworth and Roger Hilton, the future of the School was under threat. In 1975, the saviour was Roy Ray.

From this time on, the dedicated work of Roy Ray and the reputations of former and current St. Ives artists - including Ray himself - have ensured that the School of Painting has been a success.

‘By the late eighties Roy had built up a team of artists/tutors who proved to be highly popular, particularly with students who were seeking access to contemporary ideas and a more personal direction in their work. Workshops were developed along the lines of mini-foundation courses ..’

The sound of official triumph arrived in 1991, when building started on the Tate, St. Ives[7].

In 2000, in order to secure the long-term future of the School, Ray was largely responsible for establishing it as a registered charity[8]. Now, in the 21st century - more than a century after St. Ives began to attract an artists’ colony, and almost fifty years after a young Roy Ray first visited St. Ives on holiday, and attended the School’s regular morning life classes - the St. Ives School of Painting is still a resounding success. It continues to attract students from far and wide, who come to be taught by practising artists in this unique location[9].

As the success of the School owes such a great deal to Roy Ray, it would not be surprising to find that he had not found the time for his own artistic development. But that is far from the truth. Ray arrived in St. Ives as an aspiring, but largely self-taught, artist. He had left the Navy in 1959 and, by the mid-1960s, had set up his own business designing and making table lamps. During this time, he attended evening classes in Croydon - and, of course, the life classes, when on holiday in St. Ives, in the later ‘60s. In 1974, he and his family moved to St. Ives. Ray immersed himself not only in the arts activities in the area - and rescued the failing School of Painting - but also in Cornwall’s history, its Celtic significance, its people and its development as a self-contained society, the perpetually-shifting relationship between land and sea, the artists’ colonies and the geography and geology. He became fascinated not only by the ever-present luminosity of the place, but also by the durable rocks which lie beneath the Cornish earth (from which Leach and so many other potters have conjured pieces that are both useful and beautiful), the marks left on the land by the past and by the changeable Cornish climate and weather. These elemental themes have become the subject of Ray’s artistic exploration. Although not born in Cornwall, Roy Ray’s art could not have been produced anywhere else.

Ray works in a variety of media. He often presents his pieces in a relatively small, square format: these are, quite deliberately, pictures to hang in a domestic environment. And yet what they offer is a brief pause, a moment taken from a much bigger continuum. They are snatches of a theme.

Ray’s rich, earthy colours are, clearly, suggestive of the ground from which everything grows or is made; the gritty, subtly-modulated textures, often built up in layers, invoke the white china clay, so important to Cornwall’s economy, or the warm, dun earthen-ware clay which Leach had found near St. Erth. In Ray's hands, these materials are sometimes dry, cracked, torn, split open, burnt, with orange and ochre erupting all around; connoting the perpetual grind of the wind and the sea on Cornwall’s earth, or the ruin introduced by man? Surely, both.

Scattered across these pieces there are, often, man-made marks: lines, neat circles (signifying the machine, the world, a mandala?); clear, red, crosses (a primitive signature, a Christian symbol?); a scrap of newspaper, glimpsed through rubbed and scrubbed surfaces, with their evidence of erosion and defacement; the imprint of letters or codes, the communication tools of man. These are usually small marks, but they stand out in crisp and assertive contrast to the earthy background. Clearly, Ray is exploring the nature of Cornwall, its longevity, the love it has inspired, the exploitation it has endured. These are themes which can be expanded to apply to a wider canvas - Britain or even the earth itself.

Thus, in the last five years, Roy Ray has set himself the task of working on a project, Evilution. This is an ambitious programme, which has resulted in a group of five panels exhibited under the title - the rather ironic title, given Ray’s fascination with patina, the evidence of things past, the palimpsest - Where their footsteps left no trace. This is, quite specifically, intended as a memorial, ‘to the millions of innocent men, women and children who became victims of conflict by the corrupt use of science and technology: many because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time or from the wrong country or wrong race’.

First shown in the Falmouth Art Gallery, in 2008, the panels are dedicated to Auschwitz, Dresden, Coventry, Hiroshima, 911. They have already had a remarkable history. They were shown at Truro Cathedral, St, Ives Parish Church and then Coventry Cathedral. They then travelled to New York and were on display in St. Peter’s Church, near Ground Zero. The 911 panel was accepted, as a gift from the artist, and it will be on permanent exhibition at the September 11 Memorial Museum in the World Trade Centre.

Roy Ray has held many exhibitions of his work in the past 30 years. The culmination is, Where their footsteps left no trace. His art is profound, moving and intriguing. He - like Cornwall itself, like the School of Painting and like his own pieces - is a force to be reckoned with.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] J.M.W. Turner had visited and painted in St. Ives as early as 1811.

[2] Edwin Ellis had already visited St. Ives in 1882 and Alberto Ludovici Jr. in the following year.

[3] David Tovey’s book, St. Ives Art pre-1890, accompanied the 2008 exhibition, Dawn of a Colony: Picturing the West, at Tate St. Ives.

[4] See David Tovey, Pioneers of St. Ives Art at Home and Abroad (1889-1914), which accompanied the 2008 exhibition, Dawn of a Colony: Lyrical Light, at Tate St. Ives. Tovey makes the pertinent point that, in 1887-91, these artists exhibited, and had success with, their pictures at the Paris Salon, more often than the Royal Academy.

[5] In 1920, however, there was one significant development, when Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada established the Leach Pottery in St. Ives.

[6] See, for an account of the development and success of the School, written by Roy Ray himself.

[7] Ray was a leading figure in helping to raise considerable local funding for the Tate, St. Ives.

[8] Roy Ray retired as Principal of the School of Painting in 2000, but resumed, as Acting Principal, in 2005.

[9] There are now several very interesting artists who continue to tutor at the School, including Liz Hough, Alice Mumford, Liz Luckwell and Steve Dove.