Based in the west Cornwall fishing town, Porthia Prints was established by sculptor and painter Denis Mitchell (1912-93) and his brother in the 1950s in the hope of promoting St Ives as a centre for the avant-garde movement.
Encouraged by the promise of earning a little extra money, local artists submitted original designs for screen printing on linen. At least 17 painters and sculptors, a who’s who from the zenith of the St Ives scene, took part in the project that supplied table mats for sale through Heal’s of London.
Their efforts were first unveiled to the public on March 1, 1955 at the exhibition Abstract Designs at Heal’s Mansard Gallery. Ultimately, though, the project was dogged by production issues – a major sticking point being the public’s desire to own sets of mats by different artists rather than singles or multiples of a single design. Heal’s pulled the plug in 1960.
Terry Frost, Barbara Hepworth, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, Roger Hilton, Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon all contributed to Porthia. However, apart from two small exhibitions (at the Redfern Gallery in 1986 and the Belgrave Gallery, St Ives in 2006), their efforts have rarely been seen.
The collection, offered at the auction on November 14 with estimates from £200 (and hammer prices starting at £190 for paper and linen prints of Agnes Drey’s fruit bowl design), was topped at £5000 by Barbara Hepworth’s paper collage of intersecting lines offered together with three printed linens of the corresponding design in differing colourways.
Patrick Heron’s contribution to the Porthia project had been a garden landscape design in blocks of brown and green watercolour, signed and dated in pencil 1954 (£2800), with Trevor Bell submitting a number of gouache and collage abstracts including a study in blue, white and black (£2000).
The collection totalled over £38,000 with every lot sold.