Tate St Ives is a pale 1980s block, with a fat rounded porte cochère and sea-stained walls. It is the kind of house Iron Man would build if he lived in New Malden, but St Ives has always welcomed money. It is an oddity in the land of cows, pilchards and tin, beloved of retirees, surfers and urban survivalists. You can, for instance, buy a £100 rucksack at a shop called the Common Wanderer, which also sells the book Wildside: The Enchanted Life of Hunters and Gatherers. I suspect this enchantment is news to the Cornish, and always has been. St Ives is a place of tribes then, with at least three different villages sitting above the beach where surfers frolic. Then there is the art gallery.
It is very self-consciously an artistic ‘hub’. I appreciate bad art, because good art might come later if you are patient enough. Even so, I avoid the gallery; it makes me long for Mark Gertler’s ‘Merry-Go-Round’, which hangs in what should be called the Tate Gallery, but is instead called Tate Britain. There is a bright, white café on the fourth floor. It is a gallery café with no native atmosphere to impede the art which is in this case a series of ceramic Cornish pasty paintings by Simon Bayliss, including something called ‘Untitled (metaphysical pasty)’. ‘The idea to crimp the edges of his ceramics like a Cornish pasty came to Bayliss “as an epiphany” reflecting the artist’s playful engagement with the context in which he lives and works’ is his excuse, in prose. I think this means the idea came to him when he was eating a Cornish pasty, and there is nothing wrong with that, except that an artwork explaining a Cornish pasty cannot be more useful or interesting than a Cornish pasty.
‘Citizen of Nowhere’ says one pasty, sadly; and Bayliss grew up in Devon, it is true. ‘Grindr’ says another. I did not know pasties could be LGBTQ activists but these are strange times. Later, I show a photograph of the Grindr pasty to the man behind the counter at Ian Lentern Butchers in Penzance, for its pasties are excellent, if less polemical, and do not seek sex with similarly faceless pasties in some fantasy pasty sauna in London. ‘I like it,’ the butcher says. ‘It’s dark.’ I also ask a baker what she thinks of Grindr’s crimping. ‘To be fair,’ she says staring, ‘it’s quite hard to crimp around a corner.’ Cornish people are accepting of up-the-line madness. It is August. They must be, or they will chew their faces off.
So the view is of tiny ceramic pasties with ridiculous names, and of the sea, which has not been improved upon since J.M.W. Turner died.
The queue is long, and full of ‘emmets’. It means outsiders or ‘ants’. Some drink coffee too slowly, for St Ives in August is Cornishman vs ant in a Range Rover and the car parks are frenzied; others eat a generic, inoffensive menu served by charming overworked staff.
We eat good mussels, a fine sweet potato fritter, adequate chicken tacos, a too-chilly board of cheese and an immense crayfish roll; then local ice cream and a scone eaten in the Devon style. (Jam first, then cream. Of the scone wars I say only what Jesus Christ said in South Park: ‘My son, I’m not touching that with a 60ft pole.’)
It is all fine, but I can find no Cornish culture here — although perhaps only an emmet would be foolish enough to seek it. It is merely a parody of London culture, transported west for the season. I think I would have preferred St Ives when Virginia Woolf stayed here, but I wouldn’t want to read her on a pasty either.
The Café at Tate St Ives, Porthmeor Beach, St Ives, Cornwall TR26 1TG, tel: 01736 791122.