Amble through the streets of St Ives and without a doubt you will find yourself mesmerised by at least one of the diverse art galleries that are scattered throughout the small fishing town.
St Ives boasts a rich art history, and with its stunning scenery it is easy to see why so many artists are drawn to the area. The town homes the prestigious St Ives Society of Artists, which was founded in 1927 by marine artist, Commander George Fagan Bradshaw. The internationally recognised society was proposed as a vehicle to exhibit artists that were leading the way in the industry and were appreciated by the harshest of critics.
Although the St Ives Society of Artists is still thriving, most of the first painters and sculptors have now passed away, leaving Sheffield born, Victor Bramley, as one of the only remaining original members.
Victor packed his bags in 1959 and set off in the direction of Cornwall. “I ran away from an industrial background in Sheffield. All of my family were butchers, so they thought that when I said that I wanted to be an artist that it was quite curious.”
“If a person has enough vision and talent they will make it.”
Victor arrived in St Ives with no artistic training, but big dreams of making a name for himself in the artist community. He describes, “I started out in St Ives washing dishes, as you do, but within two years I was elected a member of the St Ives Society of Artists, which threw me no end.”
Victor’s work was discovered by the society when they spotted it in his shop window. “They saw my work in Fore Street, my wife and I were working in a shop there and she put two of my pieces on the wall. The curator came in and said, ‘who’s are these,’ I told him they were mine, ‘bring them down to the gallery’ he said and he hung them straight away.”
Internationally celebrated artists Barbra Hepworth and Peter Lanyon were still part of the society when Victor’s first pieces of work were hung. “They were already famous and plugging away in America for big money.” Victor depicts his awe of the artists, as he was “the new kid on the block,” but he does recollect that although they were famous, “they would never ignore you, it was a small town and they would always stop to speak to you.”
To have work displayed in such a renowned gallery after just two short years of painting is extremely unusual to say the least. “It was a natural talent, I didn’t have any art education whatsoever.” This natural talent may account for Victor’s ability to adapt to any style that he puts his hand to.
“I have done Cornish scenery but I have always been more drawn to the more rugged aspect of rocks and pebbles rather than just painting the harbour scene, because I thought that was a little too obvious and a lot of people do it.”
It is not often that you discover an artist with such an array of pieces all individually influenced by unique art movements and life experiences. Throughout his career Victor has been captivated by many different movements, his collections boast a range of styles from abstract work to still life pieces and a bit of everything else in between.
One particularly notable collection is Victor’s series of Mandalas. Mandalas are a form of art deriving from the spiritual and rituals of Hinduism and Buddhism.
“I taught yoga for eight years so I read a lot of Hinduism and Tibetan books focused on their culture. This got me thinking that I wanted to create my own Mandalas.” Victor’s collection of distinctive Mandalas proved popular with his customers, each one taking around two to three weeks to create.
Victor explains that some of the pieces that he has spent the most time on and feels are his best work, do not always receive the reaction that he expected. “I’m always amazed when they don’t like what I thought was my best work.” He explains how, “I always think that the one that I am working on is my greatest piece yet.”
In regards to opinion on his work he believes that, “It is there for other people to judge, it may just disappear into the ether or crop up in 100 years time, you just don’t know.”
“It was exciting. It was what I wanted to be doing at last.”
He recalls that in the early days when he was working as a dishwasher in a hotel in St Ives, where he also lived, he would steal hours in the nearby woods to paint whenever he had an hour off work. “It was exciting, it was what I wanted to be doing at last.” It was at this time that he met his first wife who was a receptionist at the hotel. “I married in 1960, my wife was the belle of the ball, everybody loved her in St Ives.”
The pair then went on to purchase their first home. “We got a mortgage on our first house and I mainly worked from there,” he recalls, “the village mill was empty so I paid a small amount to rent it and commandeered that as a studio.”
“I was fairly successful in doing what I set out to do and I didn’t have to move out of Cornwall to do so.”
Victor’s artwork is considered some of the best that is on offer and has resulted in a number of famous clients and regular buyers. With tops names such as James Lovelock in possession of Victor’s work he justifies, “that has raised my status from being a Sheffield boy out of the backstreets to an artist.”
Regular buyer, Egbert Dozekal, travels from Germany every year to purchase Victor’s work, compliments that “It doesn’t happen often that you go into a studio and like most of the paintings you see. What works is the variety in styles, they are very imaginative and unique.”
“I’ve never been avaricious or over ambitious, I’ve just been happy to carry on doing what I want to do,” he reflects.
As well as his famous and loyal clients, Victor puts a lot of his success down to his travels around the globe. Along with the company of his second wife, Bernadette and his sketchbook, Victor backpacked across the whole of the Pyrenees. “My journey to the mountains was very invigorating to me.” While Victor feels that his travels “widen your appreciation of space,” he would not recommend taking a sketchbook into the mountains, as “you will just come back with papier-mâché.”
He also spent time living with a group of gypsies in Kent, “I began to realise that there were other people doing other things which were interesting.”
Victor may not be a native Cornishman, but he does consider the county to be his home, “this has always been my home since I arrived in 59, I have gained a lot of friends and supporters.” In the time that Victor has been working in the St Ives area he has noticed a lot of changes. “It was just a little fishing village full of artists and fishermen, that has all altered now. It is swamped with galleries selling purely for the tourists.” Victor elaborates, “Cornwall inspires many painters, especially with the harbour scenes and that has come to be what the public like, though there are a few serious painters who have done that, it is generally of a lower level of creativity.”
Brought up in an industrial landscape, within a family of butchers whose response to Victor’s aspirations to become and artist was, “the best thing that you can do would to become a meat inspector,” he has nevertheless managed to carve himself a reputation as a well renowned and respected painter. “I owe a lot to Cornwall, if I hadn’t moved down my life would have been disastrous,” he reflects that he hopes that through his artwork he has given Cornwall back something in exchange for the opportunities that it has awarded him.
Sadly just weeks after this interview Victor passed away. A range of his work can be viewed from his workshop in Penzance.