Porthmeor Studios, in St Ives, was designed and built by photographer Graham Gaunt and provides workspace for fishermen, artists and the St Ives School of Painting.
But it is perhaps best known for the internationally significant artists who have worked here, including Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Francis Bacon and Wilhelmina Barns Graham.
Prolonged exposure to the harsh marine environment has taken its toll on the building, and it is now extremely fragile and in urgent need of major repairs.
The client is the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust; the design is by architects Long & Kentish, and the main contractor is Symons Construction from St Ives. Structural Engineer is Keith Rolleston Associates; Building Services King Shaw Associates and
Quantity Surveyor and Project Manager, Trevor Humphreys Associates.
Funding comes from Arts Council England, Sea Change/CABE, Heritage Lottery Fund, English Heritage, Cornwall Council, ERDF Convergence and European Fisheries Fund In the first phase, they are creating a whole level of public space for exhibitions entered at ground-floor level from the street and stretching through to the beach side. In the cellar there will be a learning centre about pilchard fishing and more studios. Above the public level is the School of Painting, which will have two studios at the top of the building, fitted with a new lift going up to the school and down to the studios for ease of access.
The second phase will involve work on these secondary studios and the remaining cellar spaces.
In the refurbishment, Long & Kentish is using new scantle slates from the Delabole quarry – which provided the studios’ original slates – in north Cornwall.
The studios were originally built using mining construction techniques and components: massive concrete walls; 60ft [18m] long recycled mine logs; cast iron columns plus beams from ships. There are also masonry walls and the upper superstructure is a timber frame with slate cladding, which has fallen into state of disrepair.
The building was actually beautifully made but there has been water damage and it was in such a poor condition that English Heritage was willing to pay for emergency restoration.
“The 18th century engineer John Smeaton built a wall to stop sand washing inland, and fishermen built against the wall and used the cellars to press pilchards, and the lofts to dry and repair the nets.
“In the early 1880s, after Whistler and a number of other artists came to St Ives and found that the light was fantastic, suddenly many artists started coming to work there. One converted a fisherman’s loft and by the end of the decade virtually all the lofts were studios.
“There was one period in the 1950s when there was an astounding list of distinguished artists working there, including Francis Bacon and Ben Nicholson. Meanwhile the cellars were still occupied by fishermen and still are. The relationship between them and the painters has always been quite good. They’ve always been slightly amused by each other.”
Rolfe Kentish said of the one remaining building: “It has been threatened with collapse. It is a timber, concrete and masonry building that has had no maintenance so it has leaked for years.
“We’re trying to make the studios sound without changing their character, in a way that is consistent with their history. It is a question of getting familiar with every board in the building and making individual decisions on each one.
“The challenge is how to fix it up after years of neglect and get the building maintained in the future. The Borlase Smart John Wells Trust tries to keep the studios for serious artists who can’t afford to spend a fortune on rent. So rather than charging more, the approach is to get a few more artists in.
“We’ll have room for 18 by pushing the roof up and getting in two new starter studios, and by subdividing some of the very large ones.”