The grade II Porthmeor Studios in St Ives are the most iconic artists’ studios in the country. It is probably the oldest studio complex and has hosted some of the most illustrious artists working in Britain, and the recent award-winning capital renovations won universal acclaim. A charitable organisation was set up to acquire the building in 1949, and the charity, now called the Borlase Smart John Wells Trust, still owns and manages it today.
Originally built in the early 1800s for the pilchard fishery, its cellars still clearly show how this industry worked, and the building was listed grade II in 2005 because of this evidence. Fishermen now use the cellars for storing and repairing their gear, and for setting nets. However, Porthmeor is best known for the incredible number of internationally important artists who have worked here, including Julius Olsson, Frances Hodgkins, Ben Nicholson, Patrick Heron, Francis Bacon, Terry Frost, Roger Hilton and Wilhelmina Barns-Graham. It is perhaps the oldest working artists’ studios in the country, as well as having the most illustrious occupants. This incredible heritage led to it being upgraded to grade II in 2009.
Artists started using Porthmeor around 1885, at first converting net lofts, and later moving into purpose-built studios. By 1900, there were perhaps eight to 10 studios on the site, which later increased to 13. The recent renovations increased the number of studios to 19, of which 15 are used by artists, two for the St Ives School of Painting, and two for the Trust.
The building is constructed of a mix of stone, concrete and timber frame with a wet-laid slate roof, but over a century of exposure to Atlantic gales had left the fabric greatly weakened. The recent £4 million renovations allowed the building to be sympathetically restored and strengthened, with some sensitive remodelling to provide additional studios. These works were completed in 2012, and were widely acknowledged as outstanding, winning both regional and national RICS and RIBA awards among many others.