The Cornish landscape has become synonymous with the St Ives artists and is seen as the primary force behind their work. The opening of Tate St Ives in 1993 sealed this connection but may also have given rise to an over-simplification of that relationship; a kind of mythologising that is both agreeable and consistent.
In post-war Britain the landscape was one of the few elements that had remained stable and to former serviceman and ex-prisoners of war such as Terry Frost, the attraction of the Cornish landscape and the horizons that the coastline offered must have been deeply felt. The artists themselves spoke openly about the importance of the landscape to their work. Peter Lanyon, a passionate Cornishman, went further and strived for a more visceral and immersive affinity with the land. ‘While I am moving about the county here with all this history underfoot I find the sky on my back as I climb the hills and the sea behind me, then at my side and it becomes the same thing in my painting….’.
The soft cornered square/rectangle that appears in a number of St Ives artists’ works is generally understood to be an evocation of the large rocks that pepper Penwith, some of which can be seen from the bay window of Tate St Ives. The geographical intimacy of St Ives and its tight-knit community provided fertile ground for pictorial exchanges, even those of a subconscious nature. So it seems obvious that the artists were responding, conscious or subconsciously, to a strong geological feature, one that lent itself to be used as a robust visual tool. Yet I do not think this completely explains why this particular motif was often employed by Patrick Heron and other artists.
Was there an additional influence at play? One almost acting by stealth? For even then some questioned the newly invigorated relationship with the landscape – Roger Hilton remarked, “All this tomfoolery about scenery”. 
In his book ‘The St Ives Artists’ Michael Bird records that Heron’s work changed course from 1956, ‘the chairs, pianos, jugs, coffee pots and human figures that had previously inhabited his work vanished’. Bird continues, ‘the mark-making has picked up an Abstract Expressionist looseness and impetuosity; there is a feeling, too, that the colour is lit from behind, as though from a hidden source of deep delight rather than being reflected off a surface…’ 
1956 gave the British public an opportunity to see a major exhibition of Abstract Expressionism ‘Modern Art in the United States’ at the Tate. Heron was fascinated by the work in the show and in the same year moved to Cornwall, abandoned figuration and began the journey to his more spatial works. 1956 was also the year that television was first broadcast in Cornwall. Although there seems to be little or no research on its influence upon the artist colony many paintings speak of its presence.
The introduction of a television to the domestic setting must have seemed remarkable, if not magical. It seems logical that this newfangled attention-seeking device, with its soft-cornered screen would have had a powerful impact on a group of artists who were grappling with form. Being black and white, early television also left room for artists to add their own sense for colour.
The physicality of television sets during the 1950s offered their own abstract aesthetic. Lozenged shaped, soft-corner screens chimed with the rocks of Penwith and provided another type of window that could be used as a pictorial device. The cabinets that housed them followed 1950s design, incorporating rounded corners, vertical and horizontal bands, smooth surfaces and textured audio panels.
One experience shared by all committed painters (abstract or figurative) is the understanding that certain passages need to feel right – not just appear right. This feeling that a form, tone or colour feels right could be described as arriving at a sense of familiarity. To successfully achieve familiarity requires that nothing jars the artist’s desired and final effect. With the new, powerfully expressed shape of the television screen embedded in the artist’s mind, becoming ever more familiar, rounding the corners of a square began to feel right, as, perhaps, did applying colour so it appeared ‘lit from behind’.
Commenting on Heron’s post-1957 paintings, Brandon Taylor wrote, ‘they succeed in animating space through thinly applied colour alone; the worst, that they resonate not a little with the visual shapes of a TV culture just then new in Britain’.  This is the only reference I have found which connects the round cornered motif with television. Taylor’s criticism, however perhaps misses the full significance of the coincidence between television and Heron’s shapes – Heron had departed from the language of landscape and had introduced a form associated with the Modern Age. In a most subtle and unexpected way, had popular culture touched the St Ives artists, in tandem with the birth of Pop art?
The danger of course is one of literal interpretation. That of associating any distinct form with an object from reality, rather than allowing it to exist on the terms set by the artist. It is also reasonable to assume that some artists chose not to own a television (classified in 1957 as ‘Abstainers’ by the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer), although this would not have shielded them from ever seeing a television or from seeing the motif developing in the works of their fellow artists. 
In 1950 there were 350,000 television owning households. Four years later this had risen to well over three million.  Many of the St Ives artists were in the position to acquire the first television sets and those artists who were involved in London life would also have had every chance to be exposed to television pre-1956. The impact of television on the St Ives artists should perhaps be viewed as a contributing factor in the development of their work, alongside landscape, Abstract Expressionism, the close community of St Ives and the rocks of Penwith. As such it deserves further consideration.
1. Peter Lanyon, letter to Roland Bowden, April 20th 1952. TGA 942.1
2. Lambirth, A. (2007) Rodger Hilton, The Figured Language of Thought, p.117
3. Bird, M. (2008) The St Ives Artists, A Biography of Place and Time, p.128
4. Taylor, B. (2005) Constructivism In The West Country, essay, exhibition catalogue,
Elements of Abstraction: Space, Line and Interval in Modern British Art, p.71
5. Moran, J. (2013) Armchair Nation, p.112
6. BBC Story. Online (Accessed:12/01/14)
7. Indebted to T.Genova, Television History – The First 75 Years,
http://www.tvhistory.tv/index.html. Due to lack of brightness pre-war sets required
dark viewing conditions. The technology improved into the 1950s although many
continued to watch in low light for sometime.