Fragments of conversation, childhood memories and thoughts disperse themselves throughout Samuel Bassett's paintings. Growing up in St Ives, Cornwall, Samuel was naturally exposed to the successful local painters of the time; visiting art shows of key figures such as Terry Frost, Ben Nicholson, Bob Crossley and Roger Hilton. St Ives has been Samuel Bassett's family's home since 1695. His grandfather, a fisherman by trade, was also a keen painter. The St Ives School of Painting was established in the historic Porthmeor studios in 1938. Bassett now occupies a studio space here; coincidently, one that sits directly above his grandfather’s former net loft. Bassett's work is exhibited in galleries in both Cornwall and London. We meet in his studio to discuss collecting memories, the artists that inspired him and focussing on the horizon.
Tell us a little bit about your upbringing.
I grew up in Carbis Bay in Cornwall - my family have been living in the Penwith for a long time. We had a real kind of outdoorsy upbringing – on the beach, in the woods, just out having adventures, exploring and using our imagination all the time. I grew up as part of a large community, having a lot of fun roaming between everyone’s houses - trying to keep out of trouble, you know.
Boats feature quite a lot in your work at the moment...
Yeah… my work is based on, and very much reflects my heritage. I paint boats, carve them and they do feature a lot as they’re a symbol and very relevant to me. I guess I’m part of a generation that got degrees instead of going fishing. My grandad was a fisherman and rented the net loft below my studio where I work now. My dad was a fisherman too, but now he’s Harbourmaster. I just feel fixed painting here, exploring the changes in a coastal community through the imagery I make. A lot of my work is about living simpler or stripping stuff back to basics. I made an installation with loads of carved boats once - I just sat carving boats for days and days. I guess I wanted something monk-like to do!
Do you remember when you first painted?
When I was younger, I was always into making stuff, just anything - I loved it. I started working at Porthgwidden Beach when I was 14, emptying the bins and cleaning the beach… I loved those days. That was when I first started to walk past the galleries down here. I'd paint what I saw across the bay on my lunch break. I did loads of tiny paintings over a couple of summers of Godrevy - just looking at the bay and how it changed. I really got into that, which spurred me on to paint more. Walking past the St Ives galleries every day and seeing original Terry Frosts, Sandra Blows... Artists like that had such a presence here. Seeing the quality of that painting in the flesh every day - that’s what made me love painting.
Did you collect anything as a kid?
Something that’s always been important to me is the collection of memories. I’m just making sure I try to make lots of good ones, especially as I get older. The brain is epic, being able to retain and recall such a vast number of things. I suppose I never really collected anything as a kid, I didn’t really have the money to be collecting anything more than clips around the ear. What I like now, as I get older, is that I've got all these paintings, all these drawings and diary entries that really map things out and help me remember moments. I quite like reflecting. I'm quite a nostalgic person I guess. I enjoy looking back and bringing certain things back from the past and I think that plays a part in my paintings now. There are a lot of childhood memories - sailing boats with grandparents or traditions that happen in St Ives that are coming out in the paintings.
Do you feel the presence of the artists that have painted here before?
Francis Bacon worked in this studio for a few months and he actually used to visit the house I now live in, that belonged to Norman Levine at the time. One night, we were well drunk and tried to use a ouija board to talk to Bacon. I thought 'he must be here somewhere!' But it didn’t work. I'm really into the history of who has been here though. Footsteps, and the past. I don’t really get a sense of the artists in the actual studios but, certain paintings come to mind whilst looking over St Ives or whilst feeling exposed to the elements down Pendeen way, or up Trevalgon Hill. They’re more out there.
Is this the piece you're working on at the moment?
Yeah, I just started this piece the day before yesterday. I've been adding some black this morning. I've focused a lot on the horizon in my paintings since I was young. I think I always wanted to go further and further and I'm still painting them today. The horizon excites me, like what’s beyond it. An adventure thing… I don’t know. This image, like all of my work, is highly personal, but I feel it also comments on broader social, economic events around the world. It's hard seeing so many not good things going on.
Which artists have had the biggest effect on you?
I think it'd be Hockney, Basquiat and Hieronymus Bosch. I really love medieval painting and Italian art from the 13th and 14th centuries. Artists like Duccio inspired me a lot, and Hockney's 60s and 70’s period. Francis Bacon was a big inspiration to me too. I love Craigie Aitchison's crucifix images with really strong colour. I also admire the Newlyn painters, because I'm really interested in narrative. It’s the first time that I've ever put other artists' paintings on the wall of my studio and also the first time that I've really started to use colour, so the ones that I have chosen are inspiring me quite a bit.
The full interview with Samuel Bassett is in Free Spirits, available to purchase here: