Peter Parker

The well of happiness – and despair: Queer St Ives reviewed

The town in the 1950s was a crucible of gay artistic life, as painters, sculptors, playwrights and actors flocked to it

Barbara Hepworth, doyenne of St Ives, with her sculpture ‘Mother and Child’ [Fox Photos/Getty]

In the winter of 1952 the 21-year-old sculptor John Milne travelled to St Ives in Cornwall to take up a temporary job as an assistant to Barbara Hepworth. The arrangement was that he would become her pupil in exchange for helping her in the studio, but he was subsequently paid a small salary and ended up staying in her employ for two years. By this time, Milne had decided to settle in the town, which had become a thriving modernist artists’ colony, and in 1956 he acquired Trewyn House, a three-storey Victorian property next door to Hepworth’s studio. The reason a working-class boy from Eccles could afford so substantial a house was that it had in fact been bought for him by Cosmo Rodewald, a very wealthy American-born academic 16 years his senior who was also a collector of contemporary art. The two men had met and become lovers in 1951, and although Rodewald found the man who would become his life partner some four years later, he remained Milne’s close friend and patron.

Milne decided to run Trewyn as ‘a guesthouse for painters, sculptors, and people generally connected with the arts’, and visitors included Francis Bacon, Patrick Procktor, Keith Vaughan, Noël Coward, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson. Some were merely holidaymakers, but despite finding the town ‘a stronghold of really dreary abstract stuff’ and having a tooth knocked out by his boyfriend during an altercation with locals outside the Sloop Inn, Bacon rented a studio in St Ives and produced 13 paintings while there. A woman brought up in the town later recalled that it wasn’t until she moved to London that she realised homosexuality was not universally accepted.

Julian Nixon took up with a dandified clergyman and author of such novels as My Aunt in Pink

Another regular visitor was a flamboyant young layabout called Julian Nixon, who helped run the guesthouse, becoming a talented cook ‘of the Fanny Cradock type’. Nixon joins Milne and Hepworth as the third principal player in Ian Massey’s beguiling account of what Tatler in 1958 dubbed ‘Le Quartier St Ives’. Four years earlier, Nixon had been one of a group of 15 men found guilty of ‘gross indecency’ in a notorious trial at the Somerset Assizes, but he had escaped a prison sentence, being instead bound over on condition he spent 12 months in a psychiatric hospital.

The ‘treatment’ he received proved unavailing, and after his release he took up with a succession of older men, notably Richard Blake Brown, a dandified clergyman and the prolific author of such novels as Bright Glades, My Aunt in Pink and A Broth of a Boy. It was because of this last book that Brown nicknamed the wayward Nixon ‘Brothy’, and in spite of severe provocation he remained devoted to him. Nixon left St Ives in 1965, heavily in debt, but reappeared in Milne’s life five years later when he attempted to take him to court, claiming damages of £10,000 for the ‘alienation of affection’ of a young man the sculptor had employed as a gardener.

Meanwhile, Milne had continued to pursue his vocation, but turned in the mid-1960s from carving to casting and produced many drawings. He had been advised to use drawing as a way of dealing with his frequent nightmares while undergoing Jungian therapy as a teenager, and this became a lifetime’s practice. These drawings, Massey observes, were ‘abstract expressions of his inner life that, in contrast to the formal containment and smooth surfaces of much of his mature sculpture, read as maps of his state of mind’. Hepworth remained a major influence, but whereas her work had a strong connection to Britain’s ancient landscape, Milne became more inspired by the mountainous terrains of Greece, Morocco and Iran. He was attracted particularly to the architecture, the traces of ancient civilisations and the willing young men he encountered, and the extracts from his travel diaries reproduced here are exceptionally fine.

Although their relationship was not always an easy one, Milne was devastated when Hepworth died in a fire in 1975, an event that exacerbated his regular bouts of suicidal depression and insomnia. At the same time, he was achieving his greatest success as a sculptor, with major exhibitions in Britain, America and Ireland. Having visited St Ives in late autumn, however, Massey finds it ‘easy then to imagine how one might turn in on oneself, depression seeping in like a sea fog, so that you gradually lose your bearings’, and Milne died the day after his 47th birthday from an accidental overdose of barbiturates.

Massey skilfully describes the physicality of Milne’s sculptures, mere photographs of which do not convey their volume or the experience of walking round them. He also provides an illuminating account of the queer and artistic circles in which Milne had moved in Manchester before coming to St Ives. This is an absorbing and extremely well written book, and it sheds new and welcome light both on Milne and the celebrated town in which he lived and worked.