About the Festival

A short history of the St Ives September Festival

The St Ives September Festival of Music and the Arts began in a back kitchen in Teetotal Street, St Ives, in September 1977, bringing together the diverging interests of several arts and music professionals; in particular some members of the Penwith Society of Artists and the IMS (International Musicians Seminar) from Prussia Cove. The first Festival, which ran from 14th to 24th September 1978, was already ambitious in its scope and covered folk music, dance, fine arts, chamber music, animated film, poetry, arts & crafts, theatre and open studios. It even featured a very young Nigel Kennedy as well as a young cellist called Steven Isserlis and the Cornish baritone Benjamin Luxon; while W S Graham and Charles Causley gave poetry readings.

St Ives has a resident population of 10,000, but a very high daily tourist intake during the summer months. The September Festival was always planned so that it would extend the number of tourists into the town after the school holiday season had ended, and it has been successful in encouraging its visitors to take advantage of St Ives important cultural profile at this traditionally quieter time.

Over the years there have been other well-known ‘names’ who have performed at the Festival. In 1997 Steeleye Span appeared at the Guildhall, while George Melly lectured at the Royal Cinema. Also, before too long, the St Ives School of Painting started to organize successful art classes, and every lunchtime Bob Devereux held popular poetry sessions, first in the Salthouse Gallery and then in Norway Square. Both these are still a major part of the annual programme.

With a few short breaks, in particular the late 1980s, and with different organisations responsible for arranging the programme, the Festival has been running successfully over the past forty years. Originally supported by South West Arts, funding has been found from a variety of sources, especially local businesses. For most of its history the Festival committee has been run by a group of dedicated enthusiastic volunteers, all with different expertise. Currently the Festival is structured as a not for profit company. Each member of the committee is responsible for planning a part of the Festival, while behind the scenes there has always been a large army of volunteers who steward the events.

The Festival has always been a very important part of the cultural life of St Ives, and people come from year to year to take advantage of the very wide range of events that take place. Visitors have seen a number of significant changes over the years, which has greatly enriched the Festival and put it on the international map: the opening of Tate St Ives in 1993, the complete modernisation of the Leach Pottery in 2008 and the refurbishment of the Porthmeor Studios in 2014. All these, and other cultural organisations, have long appreciated the advantages of working together in collaboration to produce the finest two week festival in the country.