York/Tate CDA Holder: Rachel Rose Smith (2011-2015)

Rachel Rose Smith was an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award holder from 2011 to 2015 for her thesis titled 'Modern Art Movements and St Ives 1939–49', co-supervised by Professor Michael White (Department of History of Art, University of York) and Dr Chris Stephens (Tate Britain).

As part of her collaborative work with Tate, she co-curated the Tate St Ives Summer 2014 exhibition International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915–65 with Sara Matson (Tate St Ives) and Chris Stephens, which was also shown at Middlesborough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA).

Here, Rachel talks about her research and shares some of the highlights of her experience as a CDA research student.

My research aimed to widen the view of modern art in St Ives, Cornwall, between 1939 and 1949 by taking a more international approach. I focused on two interlinked types of exchange: the movement of objects, people an ideas through communication and transport networks between St Ives and elsewhere, and the modern art movements which were the subject of continued thought and exploration by artists working in the town.

Early on I found that theoretical arguments associated with studies of place, hybridity and mobility were powerful tools for my own approach to art in St Ives. I thought about these artists’ relationships with St Ives in comparison with preceding experiences in other places and as filtered through their personal and professional needs. For Russian artist Naum Gabo, moving to St Ives was an opportunity to develop a burgeoning Constructive movement in Britain, which he saw as growing out of the seeds of Constructivist art of his home terrain. For Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, West Cornwall offered a new landscape to discover and a new community of artists and friends. For them all, the environs of St Ives was a relatively safe place to which they could attach some hope and trust during the tumultuous autumn of 1939.

Despite their new position on the edge of Britain, these artists continued to work at the forefront of British modernism and to develop work and ideas that extended the paths set out for them by modern art movements. After a lot of archival field work, I decided to focus on how these artists’ communication networks during the 1920s and '30s had shaped their understandings of different art movements - mainly Cubism and Constructivism - and to explore how they continued, questioned or redefined these movements from St Ives during the wartime and postwar periods.


Exhibition poster for 'International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915–65' at Tate St Ives, 2014

Being associated with Tate meant that I could draw heavily on their strong collection of modern art by key artists associated with St Ives, as well as on their library and archive collections. The key outcome of this association for my project, however, was an exhibition project with Tate St Ives. Conducted alongside my thesis, the exhibition took a similar stance to my thesis but with a broader frame which encompassed multiple generations of artists working in St ives. Working with colleagues Sara Matson and Chris Stephens helped me to put ideas into words and to learn from their own research and vast experience making exhibitions. Seeing the broader project of International Exchanges take its own form also, perhaps surprisingly, led me to follow my own approach to the wartime period with more focus and intent, as it highlighted to me how different forms of internationalism characterised St Ives at different moments throughout the twentieth century.

I became especially aware of the role of exhibitions for furthering research ideas and for presenting new perspectives. Having gained an insight into the curatorial process, I have also felt better able to pursue a career that bridges academic spheres and art organisations. 

Key moments in the PhD:

  • January 2013: At the University of York symposium ‘Ideas that Bind: Approaches to Modernist Groups and Networks’, presented the paper ’Questioning St Ives: J.P. Hodin and Responses to his Questionnaire’.
  • Spring 2013: Created a pre-cataloguing list of the papers of Barbara Hepworth at Tate Archive.
  • April 2013: At the Association of Art Historians annual conference, presented paper ‘Changing the Face of St Ives? Markets and Representations in the 1950s’.
  • October 2013: Participated in The Cornwall Workshop, a week-long arts and art-writing residency led by Teresa Gleadowe, Simon Starling and Hamish Fulton. Started teaching at University of York by leading seminars for ‘Critical Readings of Art History’ course.
  • November 2013: Contributed to Tate Papers with an article on Barbara Hepworth.
  • February 2014: Made a research trip to New York, New Haven and Philadelphia to use the Archives of American Art (NY) and Naum Gabo papers (Yale), supported by an AHRC Travel Award.
Dr Rachel Rose Smith: at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

At the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, New York

Dr Rachel Rose Smith: at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale

At the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven

  • May 2014: Opening of International Exchanges: Modern Art and St Ives 1915–65 (Tate St Ives). Participated in curator ‘In Conversation’ talks with Sara Matson and others. Contributed essay for exhibition catalogue.


rs 05

‘Craft and the Handmade’ showcase in the International Exchanges exhibition with Henry Moore’s Girl in the foreground (1931, Tate).

  • June 2014: With Helena Bonett, co-convened the first of a three-part Tate seminar series exploring legacies of modern art in St Ives.

A trip to Ding Dong mine in West Cornwall as part of the seminar series on modern art and St Ives convened with Helena Bonett (June 2014)

  • October 2014: Opening of International Exchanges at MIMA, Middlesborough.

Below: Installing the largest painting by Sam Francis for the exhibition International Exchanges at mima, Middlesborough (October 2014) and final installation of the ‘Body and Environment’ gallery.


Installing the largest painting by Sam Francis for the International Exchanges exhibition at MIMA, Middlesborough (October 2014)


Final installation of the ‘Body and Environment’ gallery in the International Exchanges exhibition at MIMA

Photo credit for portrait of Rachel Rose Smith: Jonathan Law; all other photographs courtesy of Rachel Rose Smith

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