Newlyn and St Ives



Another artist who made a lasting impression on Canney was Roger Hilton. ‘Roger stayed with us while searching for a studio at Newlyn, and we became good friends. My work was becoming increasingly abstract and we had some discussions about the problems involved. Although moving in the direction of figuration himself at this time, he would reiterate the basic teaching that he had received in Paris, which seemed to be essentially concerned with the use of colour in a purely abstract sense. This was the advice that I needed, and it has served me well ever since,’ Canney said, in 1990. In 1958 he helped Hilton find a Newlyn studio, as well as one for American painter (and later colleague at Bristol) Hassel Smith.

Also in 1958 he researched and organised the exhibition “Paintings of the Newlyn School – 1880-1900”. Canney considered that “this very successful travelling exhibition encouraged a reassessment of these painters, and of the position of the Newlyn School in 19th-century British art. Surprisingly there had been no major exhibition of their work since 1902.’ He recalled: ‘The private view was an extraordinary occasion, in which the entire population of Newlyn seemed to pour into the gallery in order to see themselves, their relatives and their ancestors, in pictures that had now become legendary.”

Making ends meet was proving a problem, however. “Life at Newlyn was extremely difficult on such a small income,” Canney recalled. “I endeavoured to supplement it by working as a part-time coastguard, often at night, and also bought a small fishing boat, but this was not a success. However, the opportunity arose to become a freelance contributor on the arts in the West Region of the BBC. While this work was fairly time-consuming, I still managed to produce a considerable body of paintings and reliefs, and exhibited consistently.”

In 1961, together with St Ives sculptor Brian Wall, Canney designed and constructed a steel and Perspex display for a travelling exhibition of African and Oceanic sculpture, for the South West Arts Association. The display was featured in the Museums’ Journal, attracting favourable comment.

The following year, Canney reorganised and redesigned the Fore Street Gallery in St Ives with architect and painter John Miller. The gallery had been acquired from Major Patrick Wylde by Elizabeth Rainsford, who wanted to provide an exhibition space for young artists. “The gallery had already been showing contemporary work, but this was now extended,” said Canney in 1990. “Both this gallery, and Elena Gaputyte's Sail Loft Gallery, showed lively mixed exhibitions and one-man shows for several years. These exhibitions had a freshness that was lacking elsewhere, in part due to the introduction of young figurative painters on the St Ives scene. Being commercial ventures, they could show whom they liked and were not subject to the constraints that existed in the society galleries at Newlyn and St Ives. Their importance in the artistic life of St Ives at that time has tended in recent accounts to be underplayed. At Newlyn, also, a Lower Gallery had been opened that gave first one-man shows to a number of artists, including Brian Pearce and Anthony Benjamin.”

From 1956 to 1965, through Newlyn Art Gallery, the Fore Street Gallery in St Ives, and his work for the media,  Canney met virtually all the artists then working in Cornwall, as well as the numerous visiting artists in the West Penwith area or those who established temporary homes there, including William Scott, Alan Davie, Francis Bacon, Joe and Jos Tilson, Sandra Blow, Adrian Heath, Patrick Hayman, Robert Adams, Merlyn Evans, Peter Potworowski, Peter Blake, and many others.

In 1964 Canney taught part time at Plymouth College of Art, finally leaving Newlyn Art Gallery the following year for Porthleven, where he administered the Summer Painting School and the Porthleven Gallery. ‘The Porthleven Gallery was in an old china-clay warehouse on the quayside,’ he recalled. ‘It was a magnificent exhibition space, possibly the largest in Cornwall. Although the gallery was short lived, many artists from St Ives and Newlyn showed there, including myself, supplemented by a group of artists from London who were working in Porthleven at the time: Eric Finlay, Brian Elliott, Frank Beanland, Amanda Barker-Mill, Barbara Dorf and Charlotte Jennings.’ He believed that these had not been previously documented.




Cornish colour

Above: ‘The Night Fishing’, 1962

Right, from top: Canney visiting Porthleven in the late 1950s; ‘Levant’, 1960; Roger Hilton in characteristic pose, probably early 1960s

Roger Hilton and abstraction