Second to London, Cornwall has more working artists than anywhere in the UK. Every year hundreds more flock to the region in all seasons, to join art classes and holidays or simply to immerse themselves in the renowned arty culture and experience the unique quality of light for which Cornwall is known.
The Light of Cornwall – An Artist’s Inspiration
The iconic painter J M W Turner, known for his imaginative landscapes and tempestuous marine paintings, first took an interest in Cornwall in the early 19th Century. His ‘Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England’ named Cornwall Britain’s equivalent to the Mediterranean due to the extraordinary colours of its stunning scenery, its peaceful setting and, of course, its quality of light.
Many other painters have felt the call of the county and been inspired by the region’s exceptional atmosphere, from the days of Joseph Turner, right up to the present day.
Other acclaimed artist, Paul Lewin created his 'Nanjizal Arch, Flood Tide' here on the Cornish Coast. The painting shows the result of the mighty natural power of sea versus land with a far-reaching view from cliff top out to the horizon. Again, ‘Rising Tide, St. Ives’ by Ray Balkwill depicts a coastal town gazing over boats awaiting the sea in a low tide harbour and Stanhope Forbes’ ‘The Harbour Window’ delicately tells the story of a seamstress at work in a small room with an extraordinary view onto the boat scattered harbour and skyline beyond.
The main aspect these 3 very different images have in common is their use of Cornish light to take their paintings from good pieces, showing interesting scenes, to exceptional artwork with a sense of soul and depth of character.
So, what is it about the light in Cornwall that has been so inspiring for such a wealth of artists across such a lengthy timeframe? And perhaps a more interesting thought, how is it different to the light in neighbouring Devon or across the water in South Wales or the light hundreds of miles away off the coasts of Scotland?
There are several factors that seem to have aligned perfectly to create this natural phenomenon from the geography of certain areas to the fundamentals of how the human eye observes light. Natural light has a number of components:
- Light direct form the sun
- Light diffused through things like clouds or mist
- Reflected light, which has bounced off another surface
Furthermore, reflected light will also be affected by what it has been bounced off. For example, light reflected off the waters of the North Sea will have a cooler, more blue tone whereas light reflected off arid Australian Outback rock will have much more of a red tone.
When considering the effect of geography, lets focus around St Ives. Facing roughly north is Porthmeor Beach which braves the Atlantic waves to delight surfers and artists alike. Bathed in the sun to the east is Porthgwidden. Between these two varied yet equally beautiful destinations lies a narrow isthmus somewhat misleadingly known as ‘The Island’.
The sandy beaches either side of the peninsular, sheltered to the south and daringly exposed to the north, have differing effects on the hues of the reflected sunlight, not only from each other but also themselves as the hours roll lazily by throughout the day. It is likely that the playful interaction of direct light and ever-changing reflected light caused by pockets of peculiar geography is one of the key factors in Cornwall’s celebrated exceptional quality of light.
When visiting Cornwall this year (or when going about your day-to-day, if you are lucky enough to live here!) take a little time to stop and truly soak up the unique beauty this exceptional coast has to offer. You won’t find a view like this anywhere else in the world!