Early life



Michael Richard Ladd Canney was born on 16 July 1923 in Falmouth Cornwall, the only  child of a clergyman, William Richard Ladd Canney, and Harriet Louise Canney (née Hewitt), an amateur artist. (Canney never made use of the double-barrelled surname himself, but the double version can be traced back several generations to Kent in the 18th century). His father was vicar of Pencoys, a small mining parish just south of Redruth, in the west of Cornwall, and the family home for the next two years was Pencoys Vicarage.

In 1925 Michael’s father was appointed rector of Redruth, which was suffering from the decline of the mining industry. From the age of five onwards, he was taken annually to St Ives show days, to visit artists’ studios, and to see the Porthmeor Gallery, showplace of the St Ives Society of Artists.

In 1937 Michael was encouraged to take up art seriously by an art master, W Lyons Wilson, at his school, King’s College, Taunton. Lyons Wilson was a fringe member of the surrealists, an exhibitor at the Redfern Gallery in London, and a friend of art critic Herbert Read.

From 1940 to 1942 Canney enrolled in full-time art classes at Redruth and Penzance Schools of Art, and at Leonard Fuller's St Ives School of Painting, ‘more informal than Redruth or Penzance, being modelled on a Parisian atelier’. Professional artists called in regularly, so that it was possible for him to meet members of the old St Ives artists’ colony, such as John Park, Leonard Richmond, Borlase Smart, Dorothea Sharp, Agnes Drey and Misomé Peile.

When on an outdoor painting expedition from Redruth with a friend in 1940, Canney saw the ex-fisherman painter Alfred Wallis, at work in his cottage in Back Road West, St Ives.

On Show Day 1942, Canney held a small one-man exhibition of watercolours of Cornish landscapes and seascapes in one of the now-demolished Piazza Studios. Borlase Smart, a principal figure in St Ives at the time, was very encouraging. Through E Bouverie Hoyton, head of Penzance Art School, Canney met his friend Graham Sutherland, then an official War Artist recording Geevor mine. Also in 1942, Ben Nicholson showed his first work in public in West Cornwall, at Penzance Art School, in a travelling exhibition. The picture, which was an uncompromising abstract, caused both bewilderment and outrage among local residents and the older members of the artists’ colonies at Newlyn and St Ives. Canney was introduced to Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Naum Gabo and Bernard Leach, who had come over to Penzance to see the exhibition.



Cornish memories

Above: Pencoys Church

Right, from top: Michael Canney in the garden of Redruth Rectory; the Rev W R L Canney with a young Michael; Alfred Wallis’s shop in St Ives; watercolour by early influence W Lyons Wilson

An artistic childhood