Cornwall, art and light

Artists have flocked to Cornwall since the early 19th century, drawn by the rugged and romantic topography and the unique quality of the light.

J.M.W. Turner12

J M W Turner’s Pendennis Castle, Cornwall, after a wreck (1811)

It was a visit by the painter of light himself – J M W Turner – that first put Cornwall on the artistic and touristic map. His 1811 armchair travel guide, Picturesque Views on the Southern Coast of England, made over Cornwall as Britain’s equivalent of the Mediterranean, with its wonderful light, intense colours and tranquil setting. His watercolour, oil and pencil sketches turned Newlyn, St Ives and Penzance into painting meccas.

By the 1920s, Cornwall was a fully-fledged bohemian artist’s colony and today has the largest concentration of artists outside London.

But does the light in Cornwall really have a unique quality? And why is it so different? There is a good deal more to light than meets the average naked human eye. Natural light, as we experience it, has several different components:

  1. Direct light from the sun,
  2. Light diffused through clouds and mist, and
  3. Reflected light (bouncing off the ocean, for example).

The tonality of reflected light is altered by the surface from which it is reflected: light reflected from a red surface will have a higher red component than light reflected by a mirror.

An investigation into Cornish light by the BBC’s Coast TV programme concluded that the air here is very clean and that the colour ‘temperature’ shifts to the cooler blue (cool) end of the spectrum by reflections from the sea and the sand.

When light is reflected it also changes phase. So when light is reflected from shallow water, part is reflected from the surface, part is refracted by the water and is subsequently reflected by the sea bed.


The landscape around St Ives is varied and creates a very specific interplay of light. Porthmeor Beach, for example, more or less faces north and enjoys the Atlantic rollers that make it such a famous beach for surfing.  Porthgwidden Beach looks eastwards and is an excellent sun-trap. Between these two beaches is The Island, a small peninsular jutting out north-eastwards.  The sheltered harbour beach faces southwards and family-friendly Porthminster Beach faces the northeast across the Celtic Sea.

These sandy beaches and the surrounding seas reflect and scatter sunlight of varying hues. These change as the day progresses and the interplay of direct light and reflected rays often produces an almost magical ambiance which casts a glow over the whole town. Scientific explanations of the light in Cornwall may well be interesting, but science can’t really account for its particular ephemeral beauty. Which perhaps explains while artists continue to strive to capture Cornish light canvas.